WASHINGTON -- In the crucial weeks before last November's elections, at least 70 members of Congress sent aides from Washington to their home districts on "official business" -- and then sent the bills to taxpayers.
Lawmakers claimed that the aides were needed to better serve constituents, but considerable evidence shows a more likely purpose: getting the boss re-elected.
While House Ethics Committee rules appear to tightly restrict campaigning by congressional staff, loopholes are large, and hardly anybody is watching. "Anything goes," says former Hill press aide John Jackley.
As a result, incumbents running for re-election routinely enlist -- at taxpayer expense -- the most savvy, powerful and motivated political operatives they can find.
And incumbent House members -- who tend to take more liberties than senators in better-financed, higher visibility campaigns -- have no intention of giving up their advantage.
No pending campaign reform proposal would curb the use of congressional staffs during re-election drives.
The advantages are easy to see. In the last campaign, for example, federal records show that:
* Rep. Les AuCoin sent eight House aides to Oregon for a total of 189 days during his campaign for the Senate. Taxpayers bought the round-trip tickets and paid the workers' salaries. Mr. AuCoin's expense report says the aides were on "official business." Former aide Bob Crane said the eight workers spent their days in the district office, but spent nights, weekends and vacation time campaigning for the Democrat.
* Rep. Tom Lewis charged taxpayers to send 10 aides to West Palm Beach, Fla., for the final weekend of his nip-and-tuck campaign. "He wanted them to be down there for election night -- win, lose or draw," said the Republican's administrative assistant Karen Hogan.
* Rep. John T. Myers, former ranking GOP member of the House Ethics Committee, flew six Washington aides to his southern Indiana district in mid-October. The aides did "various things" to "better know and serve our constituents," said Douglas Wasitis, Mr. Myers' press aide.
* Eni F. H. Faleomavaega, the Democratic delegate from American Samoa, sent two aides to Pago Pago at government expense for the last 20 days of the campaign. "We took annual leave, and we campaigned," said aide Aliimau H. Scanlan Jr. But when reminded that the $2,300 air fares were justified as "official business," Mr. Scanlan replied, "Oh, I forgot. . . . I made an earlier trip out in August and campaigned."
* Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Detroit, chairman of the House Government Operations Committee that looks into federal waste, enlisted 13 staff members in his landslide victory. Mr. Conyers called it "official representational duty," for example, when aides handed out thousands of news releases at district shopping centers and churches.
Few work the system as aggressively as Mr. Conyers, a Democrat. According to the 1990 "Handbook of Campaign Spending," the latest detailed breakdown of expenditures, the average victor spent 14 percent of total campaign funds on salaries in 1990. Mr. Conyers spent one-hundredth of that.
Restrictions on using federally paid staff members during campaigns are spelled out in the House Ethics Manual, but the rules are so permissively interpreted that they're hard to break.
For example, the manual says aides may not "perform nonofficial, personal or campaign activities." But there's a catch: Almost anything is admissible when billed as constituent service.
The manual also says aides may only campaign during their free time. But there's a catch here, too: Lawmakers decide when duties are done, comp time earned and vacations due.
And the manual says lawmakers and their staffs "should keep careful records documenting that campaign work was not done on official time." But many don't.
Getting the boss re-elected is simply part of the job, said David Coggin, top aide to Rep. Ron Packard, R-Calif. "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."