Legislators give as well as take campaign funds

December 17, 1990|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Most Maryland members of congress don't just take political contributions. Many are generous with the funds they raise, giving money away to politicians the original donors may never have heard of.

Just before the November election, Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd, sent $1,500 from his own campaign war chest to bolster the re-election coffers of House colleagues in Indiana, Michigan and North Carolina.

And in the waning days of his successful challenge to Representative Roy P. Dyson, D-Md-1st, Wayne T. Gilchrest picked up $11,000 from his future congressional comrades in eight states.

Mr. Dyson, meanwhile, collected $2,000 from four House members in his failed drive for a sixth term.

Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.-5th, and, as caucus chairman, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, gave $6,000 to fellow Democrats from Maine to California, while Representative Helen Delich Bentley, R-Md.-2nd, donated $3,000 to GOP colleagues and Representative Constance A. Morella, R-Md.-8th, gave $1,000 -- to Mr. Gilchrest.

It's as common on Capitol Hill as a handshake, adding another dimension to the advantage of incumbency that already attracts large contributions. And the sharing is on the rise.

Two years ago Common Cause, a public interest group, found that with every election the lawmaker-to-lawmaker giving is increasing. During the 1981-1982 election cycle, congressmen gave $1.9 million to each other through campaign war chests or personal PACs. That figure rose to $3.43 million during the next two years and to $5.1 million in 1985-1986, representing a figure higher than the donations of the two largest special-interest PACs.

Democrats gave most of the money during that election cycle, $3.51 million compared to $1.58 million by Republicans.

"Members are contributing to members as a way to climb up the leadership. Basically they do it for advancement," said David Eppler, a staff attorney with Congress Watch, an interest group that monitors campaign financing. Mr. Eppler noted that "legislative acumen" was once the way to a successful congressional career. "Now it's who can receive the most money," he said.

Mr. Eppler also wondered about the propriety of a lawmaker using a donor's money -- offered to help that specific candidate -- for purposes other than what it was intended for.

"There is a sign there is increasing activity" among lawmakers donating to the campaigns of colleagues, said Fred Eiland, spokesman for the Federal Election Commission.

"Principally it's a candidate who doesn't have much opposition, helping a candidate and ultimately helping themselves," he said.

Those who rarely have substantial opposition -- which is most members of the Maryland delegation -- are able to amass huge war chests and offer money to political colleagues. Mr. Hoyer, for example,was re-elected with 81 percent of the vote and now has $334,249 in cash reserves.

Under FEC regulations, congressmen who use their campaign committees to donate to fellow lawmakers or challengers are limited to $1,000 per candidate per election, just like other

individual donors.

But unlike individual donors -- who are limited to contributing $25,000 each year to either candidates or PACs -- there are no limits on how much each congressman can spend on his colleagues through a campaign committee or PAC.

"It's a practice that's been going on forever," said Mrs. Bentley, and she expects dividends.

She gave $1,000 to Representative Barbara Vucanovich, R-Nev. -- who is slated to become a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee in the next Congress.

"I support her, and she supports me," said Mrs. Bentley, who brushed aside concerns that money donated to her should only be used for her re-election effort.

"You're fulfilling what constituents expect: to get a job done in Congress."

Mrs. Bentley also said the thousands of dollars handed around by the Maryland delegation pale in comparison to the money doled out by other members, some of whom donate several hundred thousand dollars.

"Some of the stuff I've heard, it's excessive," she said.

"It can be abused," admitted Mr. Cardin, although he declined to give names.

The Baltimore congressman recalled that former House Speaker Jim Wright, D-Tex., and former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho, D-Calif., were two members who were particularly prolific donors to fellow members.

Mr. Wright gave other candidates $387,000 in 1985-1986 from his PAC, while Mr. Coelho gave $567,500 to Democrats during the same period from his PAC, Common Cause found.

Both Mr. Cardin and Mrs. Bentley said House leaders and other members pressure them to contribute.

"We are expected by the Republican leadership to help other candidates in the party," said Mrs. Bentley.

"It's suggested by the leadership. It's an understanding."

"There's always pressure on us to give to other candidates," said Mr. Cardin, who spoke of "fraternal-type pressures."

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