WASHINGTON — Rep. C. W. Bill Young (R-Fla.) recently used money from his campaign war chest to buy a light blue, $30,000 Lincoln. Rep. Bill Green (R-N.Y.) spent $12,500 of his campaign money on Broadway show tickets. And Rep. Carroll Hubbard Jr. (D-Ky.) diverted $3,000 in campaign funds to commission a portrait of his father, which now hangs in his office.
Such spending is not illegal--or even unusual. Indeed, it illustrates what really happens to the millions of dollars that members of the House of Representatives collect from political action committees and other donors before each election: Most of the money is spent by lawmakers who occupy safe seats or have no opposition, and little of it is spent on direct appeals to voters.
House incumbents insist they must have vast sums to cope with well-positioned opponents. But federal records show that more than 60% of the $145.8 million spent by candidates in the 435 U.S. House races so far during this two-year cycle leading to the Nov. 6 election was spent by incumbents whose reelection was never in doubt.
Indeed, a Times computer-assisted study of campaign spending patterns in House elections--based on data that the candidates have filed with the Federal Election Commission--found that:
--Incumbent congressmen have spent $94,894,664--or 65% of all their campaign funds--on items that have little or nothing to do with winning the support of ordinary voters. The figure includes overhead, fund-raising costs and donations to charities and other candidates.
--While most challengers are struggling just to raise enough money to pay for the bare essentials of a congressional campaign, well-heeled incumbents in Congress are using their campaign coffers as giant slush funds--with the money going for lavish entertainment of important constituents and for such personal indulgences as expensive cars, real estate, tuxedos, club memberships and even personal travel.
Also using campaign money, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) spent more than $6,600 on professional football and baseball tickets. And Rep. Edward R. Roybal (D-Los Angeles) used $100,000 from his war chest to endow a chair in his own name at UCLA.
--The enormous size of the campaign war chests maintained by most incumbents has led to an almost-routine opulence in a wide variety of campaign spending--from the elaborate fund-raising parties that the candidates throw to the super-expensive direct-mail campaigns they run and the high-priced consultants they employ, even when they are unopposed.
Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.) spent a stunning $556,694 for consultants to defeat his primary opponent this year. And Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) has invested $945,215 in his fund-raising operations during the current two-year election cycle.
Likewise, Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.) spent nearly $113,000 on staff meetings, dinners, hotels and entertainment; Rep. Steve Bartlett (R-Tex.) spent more than $200,000 to pay for his last two Memorial Day picnics, and Rep. Robert W. Davis (D-Mich.) paid $21,404 to charter airplanes to travel around his district.
Inflated by so much spending on luxuries and items not directly related to voter appeals, the total cost of House races has nearly doubled over the past decade, according to data compiled by the FEC.
Until now, reform groups and the news media have focused almost exclusively on abuses in the current system of gathering campaign contributions, virtually ignoring how the money is being spent. The Times study, which analyzed 229,169 separate expenditures reported to the FEC during the current two-year election cycle by all 798 candidates who are currently seeking House seats, is the first such comprehensive analysis of spending patterns.
The political reality in Senate races is different. Senate candidates run statewide; they seldom get reelected without opposition, and they routinely spend millions of dollars on their campaigns.
But now even uncontested House races are becoming very expensive. Ten incumbents who are unopposed or have only token opposition have already spent more than $500,000, and both Dornan and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) have spent more than $1 million. Nineteen candidates have spent more than $500,000 each in hotly contested races.
As a practical matter, it's not surprising that most campaign contributions go to the candidates who might seem to need them least. Political action committees and rich contributors give their money primarily to committee chairmen and senior House members--most of them without serious opposition--because that is the best way to influence legislation.