Kill the Zombies? FEC Mulls What to Do About Undead Campaigns

May 29, 2018 Ken Doyle

Donors, nonprofits and a lawmaker are urging the Federal Election Commission to make it harder for a dead political career to keep feeding, zombie-like, at the money left in a dormant campaign account.

Personal use of campaign money is an “abuse of power,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), said in a comment, one of dozens submitted to the FEC.

“As an individual, if I contribute to a campaign, I expect those funds to be used for legitimate campaign expenditures,” another commenter, Mary Dittert, said in an email.

The nonprofit Campaign Legal Center filed a rulemaking petition earlier this year proposing strict limits on what people who are no longer running for office can do with excess campaign cash.

The FEC announced it will begin in July to routinely review campaign committees linked to federal candidates who’ve been out of office for more than one election cycle. If expenditures appear to be for personal use, the FEC said it would follow up with additional questions.

The new FEC policy calls for reviewing spending by committees that have been dormant for at least two years. That means dozens of lawmakers retiring now with big campaign balances will have plenty of time to spend their leftover money with little scrutiny from the agency, the CLC’s Brendan Fischer said in a telephone interview.

The CLC cites a study by the nonprofit group Maplight, which found 64 members of the Senate and House who have retired or are retiring during the current election cycle raised more than $32 million since 2016 and are sitting on campaign accounts totaling more than $87 million.

Rulemaking `Premature’

Another nonprofit, the Institute for Free Speech, suggested the FEC use its existing enforcement power to clamp down on questionable spending by dormant campaign committees. “A rulemaking is premature,” said the comment letter from Allen Dickerson, counsel for the Institute.

Rep. Castor, in her comment, said the FEC should clarify “permissible and impermissible uses of campaign funds after a person is no longer running for office.”

Castor and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) are the sponsors of legislation (H.R. 5409) that would require former lawmakers to disburse all assets in their campaign committees within two years of the last time the lawmaker filed to run for office.

There’s no current limit on how long an ex-lawmaker can hold onto a campaign account. Some refund leftover campaign money to contributors, but they’re allowed to hold money in a committee account for a future campaign or to give to other candidates who are still running. A lawmaker also can give the money to a charity, so long as there’s no personal benefit, or give it a Democratic or Republican party committee.

CLC’s rulemaking petition pointed to examples of retired lawmakers with substantial campaign war chests using the money for mobile phone bills, office rent, travel and meal expenses, club dues and salaries paid to family members and others. The watchdog group said it was hard to see how such expenditures are connected to a campaign for office -– as required by federal campaign finance law — if a former lawmaker is no longer a candidate.