Members of Congress are flying high with other people's money

October 14, 1998|By Richard Reeves

WASHINGTON -- For some reason, reporting on political campaign money over the years has concentrated on the givers, not the getters. That is why a former reporter named Dwight Morris has been getting due attention recently.

Mr. Morris, formerly of the Atlanta Constitution and the Los Angeles Times, has made a business of creating a database on how candidates spend the money they raise. For years, I have accepted the conventional wisdom that campaign contributions end up on the revenue side of the ledgers of the television networks and local stations. Well, a lot does move that way, but, staying within the law, the money is ending on revenue side of politicians' ledgers.

A lot of politicians are living well beyond their means on contributions, according to Mr. Morris, who says: "Television isn't driving the campaign spending frenzy. There are about 100 races nationwide where 40 percent of the money goes to TV. Out of the hundred, two dozen will spend 60 percent on TV. But when you add it all up, campaigns spend on average about 25 percent of their money on TV."

One example Mr. Morris uses is buying and leasing automobiles. Between 1987 and 1992, for instance, 15 senators spent $586,888 on cars. Twenty-seven percent of that figure was spent by one senator, mine. Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a New York Republican, spent more than $158,000 getting around.

(In the interest of self-disclosure, my source for this very interesting material is the National Association of Broadcasters, representing the businesses that profit from the public airways. NAB lobbyists spotted a profile of Mr. Morris in a magazine, Capital Style, and sent it around as part of their campaign to reduce public and journalistic pressure on station owners to give free time or free commercials to candidates.) Mr. Morris also does a list on "freeloaders," led by Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, the leader of the Democratic minority in the House, who took $38,887 worth of free airplane trips on the corporate jets of 28 companies. Meanwhile, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, was accepting $19,774 in charter airline flights -- presumably to return to his district, which is only two hours by car from Washington.

Mr. D'Amato could not top that, but he did use $21,055 worth of corporate flights, reimbursing 15 corporations the cost of regular first-class travel. Politics is moving at a first-class-plus clip these days.

Then there are flowers. The blossom average in the House of Representatives in 1994 was $6,781 per member.

Mr. Morris also has an online column called "Money Talks" on the Washington Post's Web site. A few weeks ago he reported that so far, 109 unopposed House incumbents have raised an average of $392,225; six of those incumbents have raised more than $1 million. Apparently it costs a lot of money not to run.

A group of 111 House members who have an opponent raised an average of $421,647 each. Not one of their challengers had raised even $10,000. For the record, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia has raised $4,878,472, some of which he will transfer to other Republicans. His Democratic opponent, Gary Pelphrey, has raised less than $5,000. Mr. Gephardt's total take for this election was $4,219,583 by the end of August.

The Democratic leader of the Senate, Tom Daschle, who lives in faraway South Dakota, has been flown home by Integrated Health Services, Inc., Archer Daniels Midland, Federal Express, Health South Corp., U.S. Strategies, U.S. Sugar Corp., Exxon and Dougherty Financial Group.

So much for prairie populism. Perhaps Mr. Daschle and his colleagues on both sides of the aisle need the time to think without the bother of voters and such taking the seat next to them.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/14/98

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