Michigan’s retired congressional members sit on $3.5M in war chests
Washington — Former members of the Michigan congressional delegation are sitting on more than $3.5 million in surplus campaign cash — including former Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, who alone has $2.1 million idling in his campaign accounts.
Ex-U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Howell, who converted his campaign account to a political action committee, has held on to $1.3 million; former Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, and ex-Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, largely wound down their committees.
“I haven’t made any decisions on what to do with that,” said Camp, who served 12 House terms and chaired the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means panel.
“When I left, I said I’m not going to make any decision regarding the campaign funds for a year.”
An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity last year found former members and federal candidates sitting on nearly $100 million of leftover campaign money.
U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., wants Congress to change the law to force former members to “dispose” of their excess campaign money within six years of their last election.
“Our real target are the folks who retire without any realistic intention of coming back, and we face this problem of $100 million with nowhere to go,” Takano told the Detroit News.
“Right now, there’s no accountability to make sure that money gets used either for political or charitable purposes.”
Takano has concerns about former members whose funds get “locked up” if they pass away, and for those who go into lobbying — “in which case, the question is, is it appropriate for the member to be using that money for lobbying use?”
The Let It Go Act was referred in March to the House Administration Committee chaired by Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, where it’s under review.
No law requires former members of Congress or federal candidates to divest the money, issue refunds or close their accounts.
The money may not be put to personal use, but otherwise federal law places few restrictions on how it may be spent. Members may contribute it to charity, donate it to national or state parties, or give it to other candidates for office, according to Federal Election Commission guidelines.
Members have different reasons for hanging on to leftover cash. Some hope to run for public office again, while others want to keep a hand in the game to contribute to the causes of former colleagues and friends.
“There’s no limit on how long they can keep it if they have a positive bank balance,” said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel for the Campaign Legal Center.
“No matter what they do with the money, it cannot end up in their own pockets.”
Camp said he has no plans to run for elected office again. In March, he joined the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers as a senior policy adviser based in its Washington National Tax Services practice.
“I’m really enjoying my job at PWC, and I’m really looking forward to a long relationship there,” he said.
Camp isn’t the only member of Congress who retired last year with leftover cash sitting around. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., has $1.69 million after retiring from Congress after eight years. Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., has $1.18 million on hand, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has $2.3 million in the bank.
As recently as the 1970s, former members could take their excess cash with them for personal use after retirement, said Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center. The rules changed in the 1980s.
Among the prohibited personal expenses listed by the FEC include mortgage and rent, tuition payments, household supplies, entertainment (concert or sporting tickets), dues for nonpolitical organizations, and salary for family members.
Miller has more than $767,000 left in her campaign account. In 2015, she contributed $5,000 to her leadership PAC called Candice PAC, donated $500 to the NRA Foundation and gave nearly $1,500 to charities in Michigan.
A spokeswoman said Miller hasn’t decided how to dispose of the cash after retiring.
After a member leaves Congress, the prohibition on the use of campaign funds for personal use does not apply to any affiliated Leadership PACs, which are separate from federal candidates’ authorized committees, said Christian Hilland, an FEC spokesman.
The FEC has recommended to Congress that it extend the prohibition on personal use to all political committees, in a 2013 memo calling the unauthorized disbursements for personal use a “growing problem.” Lawmakers haven’t acted.
“I can’t imagine Congress doing it because Congress directly benefits from the absence of restrictions on these committees,” Ryan said.
The prohibition on personal use stays with the money, even if the candidate converts his or her committee to a non-candidate political action committee.
Say a former member gives a portion of his campaign funds to a nonprofit such as a university. It would be a violation of the personal-use ban if that university were to create a job for the member and pay them the funds that were donated, Ryan said.
Former members who become lobbyists often convert their candidate committees to politcal action committees, in part because there’s fewer FEC restrictions on PACs. They may accept larger contributions of up to $5,000.
Rogers for Congress was converted to Securing America’s Future (SAFE) PAC, according to FEC records. SAFE PAC has sat idle so far this campaign cycle.
Rogers, the former House Intelligence Committee chairman, has focused this year on the organization he launched aiming to influence the 2016 presidential campaign by promoting “strong” American foreign policy. The group has hosted forums in early primary states.
The leadership PAC for former Sen. Spencer Abraham, who left office in 2001 and later served in President George W. Bush’s cabinet, remains active with nearly $19,000 on hand as of June 30.
Abraham’s PAC, the Fund for American Opportunity, in June gave $5,000 to the campaign of Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, who faces Democratic challenger, state Rep. Gretchen Driskell, and $1,000 each to Reps. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, and Pat Meehan, R-Penn.
Other candidates’ committees live on because they carry debt, and the FEC won’t terminate them until they settle up with creditors.
Rep. Thad McCotter, who resigned from office in 2012, who has $615 in leftover campaign funds, is saddled by $105,600 in debt from his long-shot bid for the Republican nomination during the last presidential cycle.
The bulk is owned to consultants and lawyers,, according to FEC records. McCotter declined to comment.
The FEC keeps on indebted accounts because long-term debt is essentially a campaign contribution — a practice that the commission doesn’t encourage, as it would weaken limits on contributions, Ryan said.
Other former candidates from Michigan with campaign debt include Republican Terri Lynn Land, who last year ran against now-Sen. Gary Peters. Land owes $250,000.