Printer Friendly

Good help isn't hard to find.

You don't have taxpayer-subsidized workers to helps you keep your job. So why should your congressman?

When Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was indicted last month for using state employees to make campaign fund-raising calls and using a state computer to keep track of contributions, there had to be a few quickened pulses on Capitol Hill. After all, Washington incumbents are accustomed to using their offices for partisan work.


* Two weeks before last fall's election, retiring Rep. Glenn Anderson dispatched five congressional aides to California where they campaigned for Anderson's chosen successor, Evan Braude, his stepson, at taxpayers' expense.

* Rep. Les AuCoin, running hard for Oregon's Senate seat, flew eight Hill aides out last fall for a total of 189 days. Taxpayers paid their salaries and airfares because they frequently worked days in AuCoin's district office, says former aide Bob Crane. Nights, weekends, vacations, and comp time they spent campaigning for AuCoin.

* Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee that investigates federal waste, out-did them both, enlisting 14 members of his staff in one way or another in his Detroit reelection campaign. Among the aides' taxpayer-paid "official representational duties" was handing out thousands of Conyers' press releases at shopping centers and churches shortly before election day.

Overall, at least 70 incumbents summoned two or more federally-paid Washington aides to their districts late in their campaigns, House expense records indicate. Typically, lawmakers claimed, "official business" required their aides' presence. Just as typically, that business ended on election day. Aides who are skilled political fighters and whose futures are riding on their bosses' reelection are one big reason that incumbents won 93 percent of the races they entered last fall, down just slightly from their 95 percent rate in the eighties. "They're part of the permanent campaign, right along with franking. It's a terrible, terrible abuse," says Sara Fritz, a Los Angeles Times political finance analyst and co-author of The Handbook of Campaign Spending.

Most folks don't get publicly-funded assistants to help them keep their jobs, and it's unclear why congressmen should be an exception. But pending campaign reforms do not address campaigning by aides or a second widespread abuse among incumbents seeking reelection: the use of franked mail as a campaign tool. Fund raising aside, those are the two key advantages most frequently exploited by incumbents in their campaigns. The only restraints on incumbent House campaigners - who are generally considered more audacious than their Senate counterparts - is the tough-sounding but toothless House Ethics Manual.

The 493-page guide bars incumbents from using government funds to campaign. But there's a catch: Almost anything is admissable when it's billed as "constituent service." The manual also permits aides to campaign only on their own time. But there's a catch here, too: Lawmakers decide when the workday is done, when aides have earned comp time, and when they can take vacations.

"After Congress lets out in mid-October, it's amazing how many staffers show up in the district hammering in yard signs," says J. Kevin Broughton, a former press aide to Rep. Bob McEwen of Ohio, a member who lost last fall. "It's wrong, but incumbents have an incredible, unfair advantage." Among Broughton's most important assignments last summer, he recalls, was creating a newsletter lauding the boss, who faced a tough primary battle. "It was nothing but glorifying the incumbent, but we disguised it as informing constituents and sent out hundreds of thousands of copies as franked mail," says Broughton.

The ethics manual notes that incumbents cannot use their frank for mass mailings within 60 days of a primary or general election. But that doesn't curb campaigners' use of the frank so much as channel it. In the final week before the deadline last year, pallets of "official communications" awaiting pick-up by postal workers made the corridors outside the House printer virtually impassable. Elections just after redistricting, like the last one, also lay bare the timeless ruse that franked mass mailings are non-political communications with constituents. Inevitably, these letters were mailed not to constituents who elected the member, but to those in the new district whom lawmakers sought to impress. That's fine by the obliging House Ethics committee, so long as some portion of the old district is included in the new district.

Frank Incensed

Most aides are mum or vague about campaign work, but when McEwen's troops vacated their House office, they left some tell-tale clues behind on the office computer. The documents disclosed by his successor, Ted Strickland, began to show how aides helped McEwen without ever leaving the federal payroll.

A press release, for example, begins: "'Ted Strickland's got a lot of nerve,' campaign manager Barbara Briggs said after more bogus charges from the perennial candidate." Briggs' title and her tirade may have made her sound like a campaign staffer, but House financial records indicate that she was on McEwen's congressional payroll at the time, earning $43,000.

The ethics manual requires that campaign work "Be kept out of the congressional office." But a loophole sets Briggs free. Splitting time between the campaign and official duties is okay, if the boss approves and clear distinctions are maintained on timesheets. Federal Election Commission (FEC) records indicate Briggs earned an additional $11,937 salary from McEwen's campaign while serving on his staff. She says she has "no idea" how much time she actually spent on official versus campaign work.

Another aide, William Pascoe III, earned $40,000 as McEwen's chief of staff while soliciting contributions for McEwen in his spare time. Some of the memos on the office computer were his, Pascoe acknowledges. "But I did them at home, on my computer." Fund raising for the boss is okay too, as the ethics manual says, as long as aides do it on their own time, outside federal facilities. McEwen declined comment on his campaigning aides, unless he could speak off the record.

A half dozen such talented volunteers can easily be worth $100,000 to an incumbent, based on the cost of political consultants of comparable talent. That's substantial help, considering that House campaigns cost, on average, $197,000 last year, according to the FEC.

For challengers, an incumbent's campaigning aides are likely to be stealthy, as well as potent, forces. "Clearly, a good number of his staff were working on his reelection," recalls Republican Dennis Shea, who lost to incumbent Rep. Thomas Manton of New York last fall. "But only Inspector Clouseau could tell whether they were working on official time or their own time." (Steven Vest, an aide to Manton, says staffers did not campaign while receiving federal pay.)

Though some aides are skittish on the subject, it's clear that pounding the pavement for the boss during election time is now part of Capitol Hill culture. To David Coggin, top aide to California's Rep. Ron Packard, getting his boss reelected is simply part of the job. "I'm the third chief of staff here, and with all of us it's been the same - you take your vacation and run the campaign." Packard paid Coggin $14,000 as a campaign consultant on top of his $94,000 congressional salary.

Other aides volunteered and were rewarded with promotions, raises, or bonuses once their bosses were reelected. Two top Republicans, for example, House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, repaid campaigning staffers with year-end cash gifts in 1990. Stevens used campaign funds; Gingrich, government funds.

Because publication of House office expense records lags three months or longer behind outlays, it's impossible for challengers - or reporters - to learn during a campaign's heat whether aides remain on the federal payroll. The ethics manual states that they "should keep careful records documenting that campaign work was not done on official time." But many don't, and some lawmakers, like Conyers, refuse to disclose what leave or vacation time aides took for campaign work.

For instance, two aides to the delegate from American Samoa even flew to Pago Pago at government expense for the 1992 campaign's last 20 days. Did they do any official business 7,500 miles from Washington? "Not really. We took annual leave and we campaigned," one of the aides, Aliimau H. Scanlan, Jr. initially replied. But, Scanlan was reminded, their $2,300 in air fares was justified as "official business." "Oh, I forgot," Scanlan said after a pause. "I made an earlier trip out in August and we campaigned." He declined to produce those travel records, however.

Seem outrageous? Fact is, the rules are so lax that aides have to fudge them much more blatantly than Scanlan to make any trouble for themselves. The only lawmaker who may have run afoul of campaigning rules is retired Rep. Anderson, whose staff helped his stepson, Evan Braude, in a close loss. According to Braude, the FBI is investigating whether his stepfather - but not Braude - misused government resources. Although the Justice Department rarely and reluctantly intervenes in legislative matters, lawmakers can be charged with fraud if they "compensate individuals from public monies for campaign services." Anderson referred to his wife, Lee, as a campaign adviser to her son; she insists aides campaigned on their own time.

The House Ethics committee doesn't care. Only seated members fall within its jurisdiction, meaning that its rules apply only to winners. When exploiting free campaign help, it seems, incumbents just can't lose.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:when Congress members use public employees for their personal campaigns
Author:Greve, Frank
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Down and out.
Next Article:Journal fever.

Related Articles
The Keating 535; Charles Keating did us a favor: he showed us how to clean up American campaigns.
The public should finance election campaigns.
Not dead yet.
Where are the good guys when we need them? While the public interest groups fiddle, campaign finance reform burns.
'The First Amendment is not a stop sign against reform.' (American Civil Liberties Union)(The ACLU Vs. Public Citizen: A Debate on Campaign...
One Cheer for Soft Money.
Not business as usual.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters