WASHINGTON - Members of Congress have lots of advantages when they run for re-election - but they don't get all the breaks.
A handful of challengers have found a loophole in the election law that allows them to use campaign contributions for personal expenses such as home mortgage and car payments, groceries, clothes, golf games and parking tickets.
Incumbents are forbidden to take advantage of the loophole.
In Indiana, Republican Mike Pence, who left his law practice in January to run full time against Democratic Rep. Philip Sharp, is living on his political donations. He raised $213,578 in campaign contributions this year, and diverted some of it to make monthly $922 mortgage payments on his Indianapolis home and $222 monthly payments on his wife's car as well as more customary campaign expenses. His press secretary, Edward Sagebiel, said Pence takes a ``basic living stipend of $2,000 a month'' out of the campaign treasury.
Another Indiana Republican, Rick Hawks, resigned his job as pastor of Blackhawk Baptist Church to run against Democratic Rep. Jill Long.
Hawks has raised $249,868 for his race this year, using the funds to make monthly $597 mortgage payments, monthly payments of $295 to utility companies, and $380 in health insurance payments to his church.
In North Carolina, two other Republicans are also using campaign funds to pay personal bills. Ted Blanton has left his law practice to run against Democratic Rep. Bill Hefner, drawing $11,600 in campaign funds for living expenses. Republican Ken Bell also left his law practice to run against Democratic Rep. Stephen Neal. Bell has used $2,500 of his campaign funds to make mortgage and car payments.
Pence, Hawks and Blanton defend their use of campaign contributions for personal expenses.
``Ted is only a middle-class lawyer, not a millionaire like Congressman Hefner, who has the luxury of a $96,600 taxpayer-funded salary to carry him through the campaign,'' says Eric Armstrong, Blanton's press secretary.
In fact, while members of Congress are barred from using campaign funds to pay personal bills, the lawmakers are allowed to decide for themselves what constitutes legitimate campaign expenses, and many lease or purchase automobiles, travel to luxury resorts outside their districts, enjoy expensive dinners at posh restaurants and buy tickets to sporting events, and pay for them with campaign funds.
Rep. Carroll Hubbard Jr., D-Ky., spent $59,369 on air travel, food and lodging in his last campaign, and paid $29,418 in salaries and expenses to his wife, his two daughters, his mother and his aunt for campaign services.
Nevertheless, the idea that challengers can use campaign funds for mortgage and car payments infuriates and frustrates some incumbents.
``If it's not illegal, maybe it's not unethical,'' says Rep. Beryl Anthony, D-Ark.
``But it's hypocritical, and I think it's a practice that should be stopped. I don't see how candidates can run out there and spend hard-earned campaign funds for personal use, knowing that when they get to Congress they are going to be prohibited from doing it.''
Rep. Andy Jacobs, D-Ind., has proposed legislation barring challengers from using campaign funds for personal expenses.