Despite strong wording in the House Code of Conduct that seems to prohibit commingling of personal and political funds, Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) has apparently been spared by a loophole from an ethics violation.
Wright announced last week that he had used excess campaign contributions to pay some personal business expenses which, he said, had become "inseparably entwined" with his campaign debts.
On its face, that would seem to violate the House ethics code, which states flatly that "a member . . . shall keep his campaign funds separate from his personal funds." But a subsequent clause in the code apparently nullifies that prohibition.
In the Senate, in contrast, commingling personal and campaign debts probably would constitute an ethics violation, because the Senate ethics rules do not contain the escape clause found in the House version.
The provision in the House rules that would seem to apply to the Wright case is Clause 6 of House Rule 43, which states:
"A member of the House of Representatives shall keep his campaign funds separate from his personal funds. Unless specifically provided by law, he shall convert no campaign funds to personal use in excess of reimbursement for legitimate and verifiable prior campaign expenditures and he shall expend no funds from his campaign account not attributable to bona fide campaign purposes."
Although that rule reads like a clear prohibition of personal use of campaign funds, it contains a loophole large enough to sail a yacht through.
The phrase "unless specifically provided by law," which was added to the House rule in 1975, is a reference to the Federal Election Act. But that act does not preclude personal use of campaign funds; it says that political contributions can be used for campaigning or for "any other legal purpose."
Lawyers familiar with congressional rules of ethics say that, technically, at least, the "unless" clause would permit a congressman to use campaign money for "any legal purpose," including personal expenses, without running afoul of the Code of Conduct.
"I can't believe it was intended that way," Bob Moss, counsel to the House Administration Committee, said. "But the way it's written, I guess you could take campaign money and go buy a houseboat."
Fred Wertheimer, political finance expert for Common Cause, said that "using political funds for personal expenses is dead wrong, and the House rules were written to reflect that.But the 'unless' clause probably destroys the legal effect of the rest of the rule."
Senate rules permit use of campaign funds only for two purposes: political campaigning and running a Senate office. The rules state that senators "shall not use directly or indirectly any part of any contribution for any other purpose . . ."
Unlike the House code, the Senate rules make no reference to the Federal Election Act.
"Our rule is stiffer than the election law," says Ben Fern, of the Senate ethics committee. "When the law was passed, there was some question whether it superseded the Senate rule. But there have been enough opinions now to make it clear that despite the law, we preclude conversion (of campaign funds) to personal use."
Last week the special commission reviewing House ethics rules recommended a change in the Code of Conduct that would partially limit a congressman's right to make personal use of campaign contributions.
Apparently in response to Wright's announcement, the commission suggested a rule prohibiting using the proceeds from testimonial dinners for personal debts. But that change would still permit conversion to personal use of direct contributions not connected to a dinner.