House Democratic leaders are pushing a rule change that would allow lawmakers to accept unlimited contributions to pay costs related to the redrawing of House district lines before the 1992 elections.
The proposal, made public yesterday, drew immediate criticism from the president of Common Cause, the public interest group. "It opens the door to unlimited, unrestricted money coming from individuals, groups, corporation and labor organizations to members of Congress," said Fred Wertheimer.
The new rule, sponsored by Rep. Martin Frost (D-Tex.), would allow House members to establish accounts separate from campaign funds to collect money for lawyers and consultants as part of the redistricting process. The contributions would be disclosed as part of the annual congressional financial reports.
Because the funds are not related to a federal election, they would not be subject to the federal campaign finance laws that restrict the sources and amounts of contributions.
The 267 Democrats who will serve in the 102nd Congress are to consider the rule change today. If they approve it, the House would be asked to ratify it after convening Jan. 3.
Proponents said the change is needed because current House regulations prohibit lawmakers from accepting gifts worth more than $200, and redistricting funds could fall under the rules covering gifts.
Wertheimer yesterday asked all lawmakers to oppose the change. "It's as if no one is paying attention to the 'Keating Five' hearings going on across the street," he said in an interview, referring to the Senate ethics committee inquiry into alleged influence-peddling involving five senators.
"It's going in the totally opposite direction of where they should be going," he said. "Congress should be closing down ways of special interests getting money to members . . . . This would open an outrageous, gaping loophole."
Asked if the new rule would pose ethical problems, Frost said, "As long you have public disclosure, the answer is no."
Redistricting, which is done after each national census, is of vital importance to House members. The shift of a boundary line could pit
two incumbents against one ano- ther or change a lawmaker's district from being politically and demographically favorable to being unfavorably so.