"They treat their campaign fund like a personal slush fund," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal-leaning watchdog group. "Every time you're on your way to campaign office and you stop at Starbucks, you call that a legitimate campaign expense?"
Federal law seems clear enough: "A contribution or donation . . . shall not be converted by any person to personal use."
In other words, if you were going to buy it anyway, you can't charge it to your campaign, said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer with another outside watchdog group, the Campaign Legal Center.
State-level campaign reports have their share of novelties. In New Jersey, State Sen. Stephen Sweeney expensed more than $120,000 in dinner tabs to his campaign funds - along with more than $1,700 worth of cigars. In Pennsylvania, where the law says campaign cash can be spent only on "influencing the outcome of an election," then-Mayor John F. Street once reached into his campaign coffers to underwrite his loved ones' trip to Rome.
The Federal Election Commission lists items a campaign should not cover: mortgage or utility payments, clothes, vacations, and admission to clubs or events not tied to campaign activity.
Even so, critics say, the FEC is slow to intervene. And others who might detect campaign-finance misdeeds - the House and Senate Ethics committees - are less likely to act against a colleague, said Craig Holman, government-affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen, another watchdog group.
"There is this general attitude that candidates should run their own campaigns," Holman said. "As a result, you see lots of all kinds of expenditures that range from humorous to downright unethical and illegal in some cases."
So when it came out that U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D., N.J.) had used about $10,000 from his campaign coffers for a family trip to Scotland, it was hardly the first or most egregious example of a congressman using such funds for what looked to be a personal expense.
Andrews, 54, of Haddon Heights, a 20-year-veteran of Congress, said he has always followed the spirit and letter of the law; he also said he would reimburse his campaign account and then redirect the money to homeless veterans. And he defended several campaign-expensed trips to California that combined political stops with auditions for his younger daughter, an aspiring actress.
Critics differ on whether Andrews crossed the line. None is confident that he will be penalized. "The FEC in the past few years has been impotent; it's totally useless," Sloan said. Still, she has asked the agency to look into Andrews' spending.
She might not want to hold her breath. Since 2008, the agency has been mired in partisan gridlock, with three Democratic and three Republican members repeatedly entering tie votes, which, like a hung jury, prevent regulatory action.
Holman faults the GOP members for too often treating campaign money as a form of free speech. "They have really broken the FEC," he says.
But Donald McGahn, one of the three Republican FEC commissioners, points to recent Supreme Court rulings - especially the 2010 Citizens United case, which barred the government from limiting independent political spending by corporations or unions, and helped spur the rise of super PACs.
"It's not like I'm taking things into my own hands and deciding what the First Amendment means," McGahn said in an interview. "I'm following what the courts have said it means."
He also said the FEC's Democrats should share blame for deadlocked votes.
As for Andrews' Scotland expenses, it could be months before the FEC signals whether it is investigating, Ryan said.
Then again, he said, some contributors may not care much about how their donations are spent.
"Donors to incumbents in safe seats are generally not naive; they're special interests looking for access and influence over the elected official they're cutting a check to," he said. ". . . and they don't care if the money is spent on parties and travel."
Contact staff writer Joelle Farrell at email@example.com, 856-779-3237, or @joellefarrell on Twitter.
Inquirer staff writer Bob Warner contributed to this article.