"IF I HADN'T had my own money," Rep. John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.) has been quoted as saying, "I couldn't have won." The money he was referring to is a $227,800 loan made to his 1980 congressional campaign, and the victory was his upset win over an eight-term Democrat. The loan money bought crucial TV time and accounted for 46 percent of Mr. LeBoutillier's campaign expenditures. But was it his own money? Documents examined by The Post's Morton Mintz show that Mr. LeBoutillier claimed much more modest personal assets in 1979 and 1980 disclosure forms, and, though he says the loan came from "money left to me by my father," his father's will--a public document--leaves all his money to his widow.
The question of whether Mr. LeBoutillier's loan came from his own or other people's money might in the ordinary course of things be only a personal one, except that the campaign finance laws, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, make a sharp distinction between spending one's own and other people's money. It's OK for a candidate to spend his own money on his campaign: the Supreme Court said in 1976 that to prohibit that would infringe the First Amendment right of self-expression. You can even, in a state that has community property laws, spend your spouse's money: Tom Hayden reportedly used Jane Fonda's earnings from "Fun With Dick and Jane" (not one of her critical successes) to finance his 1976 Senate campaign. But where state law does not give a right to a spouse's earnings, the spouse can't contribute: Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D- N.Y.) had to scramble to raise money in 1978 so her campaign could repay a (fully disclosed) loan from her husband.
This seems a silly distinction, and we see no harm in letting spouses contribute in every state. But the Federal Election Commission regulation that prohibits candidates from contributing money they did not have at the beginnings of their campaigns (except money acquired by inheritance) makes good sense. Otherwise, candidates could accept loans or gifts from relatives--as may have happened in the case of Mr. LeBoutillier--or indeed from complete strangers, turn the proceeds over to their campaigns, and effectively evade the campaign finance law's prohibition on contributions over $1,000.
The way to prevent this evasion from becoming common is to penalize promptly candidates who violate the regulation. Last year the campaign of Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) paid a $5,000 fine because Mr. Gorton borrowed $200,000 from his father in anticipation of an inheritance and lent it to his campaign. The penalty was comparatively mild because Mr. Gorton had openly disclosed the source of the money. If there is an attempt to conceal a source of funds, and if the amount of money was large and critical to the outcome of the election, then the penalty should be more severe. That Mr. LeBoutillier's $227,800 loan is such a case has not been determined, but in the circumstances it seems an appropriate subject of inquiry for the Federal Election Commission, the House Ethics Committee, and perhaps the Department of Justice as well.