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Pinning Down Rules on Using Campaign Funds

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CONGRESSIONAL watchdog groups are lobbying for stronger enforcement of laws that prohibit personal use of election campaign funds.

At the same time, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) is now setting new rules to define exactly when the spending of campaign money is personal rather than political.

But any move toward stricter enforcement faces tough opposition.

``It's one of those rare issues where the Republicans and the Democrats team up,'' says Meredith McGehee, senior lobbyist with Common Cause. Representatives of the two parties' congressional campaign committees, testifying before the FEC, have argued that tighter restrictions on the use of campaign funds could ``impinge on the appropriate discretion of candidates to determine which expenditures are campaign-related.''

Many members of Congress ``railed against'' the FEC's move to tighten its rules on campaign spending during recent appropriations hearings for the commission, said Elizabeth Hedlund, director of the FEC-Watch Project at the Center for Responsive Politics. Ms. McGehee asserts that current practice, particularly among House members, can define a wide range of spending as ``political'' and, therefore, legitimate. ``It's virtually carte blanche,'' she says.

Among the more extraordinary ``campaign'' expenses, as documented by the Los Angeles Times: tickets for the Super Bowl and other professional football games, evening gowns for candidates' wives, country club dues.

Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, is reported to have spent $370,000 in campaign funds on legal fees for himself and his staff - related to a two-year federal investigation of his personal and official finances.

Campaign funds are sometimes used like ``expense accounts,'' says Charles Lewis, head of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, with politicians, for example, ``making speeches around the country loosely tied to their campaigns.''

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