By Frank Bass, MapLight
More than five dozen congressmen who have retired or plan to retire next year have raised at least $32.8 million since the 2016 election, according to a MapLight analysis of campaign data. The 64 departing senators and representatives have accumulated $95.1 million in campaign funds.
At least $87.3 million in campaign funds raised by retiring lawmakers is stored in committee treasuries, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The surplus money can be transferred to a party, donated to other candidates, donated to a nonprofit foundation, or used to continue political activity of retiring lawmakers. Loopholes, however, are egregious and common. The remaining $7.8 million balance in “leadership committees” is subject to fewer restrictions and can be kept by the retiring lawmakers.
The excess campaign funds have accumulated as the Federal Election Commission considers a new rule proposed in March that would prevent retired lawmakers from continuing to use campaign funds for questionable expenditures that have included everything from the costs of private club memberships and monthly cell phone bills to consulting services paid by the campaign fund of a dead congressman. The FEC is accepting public comments on its proposal until Monday.
“It shows that there’s unanimous agreement on the part of the FEC that this is a problem,” said Brendan Fischer, a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that pushed the commission into drafting the proposal. “It’s sending a signal to former officeholders you can’t use leftover campaign money as a slush fund.”
The retiring crop of lawmakers may still have a chance to use the money to their own benefit, said Fischer. The FEC is considering a two-year window to dispose of a surplus for retiring members of the House of Representatives, and a four-year window for retiring senators.
Sixty-four lawmakers have either retired or announced plans to retire in the wake of Donald Trump’s 2016 White House victory. The retiring lawmakers include 45 Republicans who have declined to run for re-election. Eight House GOP members are leaving their seats to run for the Senate; five Republican lawmakers are running for governor.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, who announced his plans to quit last month, will dispose of the largest war chest of any retiring lawmaker. The Wisconsin Republican reported $13.1 million in campaign funds at the end of March, roughly $2.7 million more than his balance at the end of 2016. At the end of March, Ryan’s campaign funds include $10.6 million in a committee fund and a $2.6 million balance in Prosperity Action, a leadership PAC.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Texas Democrat, reported an $8 million campaign balance at the end of March, about a $7.6 million increase over his 2016 balance. O’Rourke, who doesn’t have a leadership PAC, is using the campaign committee funds in his bid to unseat unpopular incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz, a first-term Republican.
O’Rourke is among eight retiring Democrats running for a different office. Two Democrats ― Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan ― resigned in December after being accused of sexually harassing women.
Only two retiring lawmakers reported a zero campaign fund balance at the end of March ― Rep. John Delaney, a Maryland lawmaker who has announced his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and Rep. Steve Pearce, a New Mexico Republican who’s leaving Capitol Hill to run for governor.