Retiring members of Congress have $50 million in their campaign coffers. Where will it go?

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by Matthew Kelly

After entertaining a re-election campaign, Senator Bob Corker confirmed in February that he will retire at the end of his term. The Tennessee Republican will leave after 12 years in office and, if nothing changes, with $6.2 million in unspent campaign funds — the most of any outgoing member of Congress.

Corker’s office did not respond to inquiries after two weeks about what will happen to leftover money at the end of the senator’s term.

Neither did the offices of Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) or Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio) — who have a combined $20.2 million in campaign funds and are not seeking re-election.

In all, the 42 members of Congress who plan to retire or have already resigned ahead of November’s midterm election, and their campaign committee war chests boast a combined $50 million.

It’s unclear what outgoing members plan to do with that money, but using remaining funds as personal piggy banks or retirement accounts is illegal. Federal campaign finance law prohibits the spending of campaign cash for personal expenses — or purchases unrelated to a member’s candidacy or time in office.

Theoretically, that means a retired lawmaker can’t use leftover funds to pay country club membership fees, buy cars, or foot the bill for their children’s college education. But abuse of the system runs rampant.

As The Tampa Bay Times recently reported, former lawmakers have used their leftover campaign funds for everything from buying college football season tickets to paying family members thousands of dollars for no apparent reason — all without being formally investigated by the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

“It’s a serious issue, because the use of your campaign funds for personal use has been prosecuted by the Department of Justice as a criminal violation,” Larry Noble, senior director of ethics at the Campaign Legal Center, said. “Not only is it a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act, if you’re using your campaign funds to support yourself, and you’re not paying income taxes on that, you’ve also violated the Internal Revenue Code.”

OpenSecrets reached out to seven of the outgoing lawmakers with the most cash left in their campaign accounts. Only a representative for Arizona Republican Jeff Flake responded.

“Sen. Flake has already returned more than $1.5 million in contributions, and that number is expected to grow as the campaign continues to process refund requests,” Jason Samuels, Flake’s communications director, wrote in an email. “Beyond that, remaining funds will be used to close down both the campaign and Sen. Flake’s official offices in Phoenix, Tucson, and Washington, DC.”

Most Cash on Hand for Outgoing Members:

Name Chamber State Party Campaign Funds Reason for Leaving

Bob Corker Senate Tenn. R $6,243,996 Retiring

Pat Tiberi House Ohio R $5,996,586 Resigned

Orrin Hatch Senate Utah R $4,980,936 Retiring

Ed Royce House Calif. R $3,678,625 Retiring

Al Franken Senate Minn. D $3,192,351 Resigned

Patrick Meehan House Pa. R $2,340,502 Retiring

Ted Poe House Texas R $2,054,313 Retiring

Tom Price House Ga. R $1,887,329 Political Appointee

Jeff Flake Senate Ariz. R $1,406,775 Retiring

Xavier Becerra House Calif. D $1,405,561 Resigned

*Table includes members who are retiring or have resigned from the current Congress. Data excludes political appointees still in office.

Noble said reimbursing donors for their contributions is the “cleanest way” to go about shutting down a campaign committee after retiring or resigning.

“If you think about the fact that people gave you money to run for office and you’re no longer going to be running for office (or) … in office, you should refund the money,” Noble said.

Ethics aside, outgoing lawmakers have little incentive to shut down their campaigns in a timely manner. The FEC allows campaign committees to keep running indefinitely after members are out of office.

“The theory behind it is that if they decide to run again, they can convert their campaign into a new campaign committee and just roll over the money,” Noble said.

But that can be exploited, as in the case of former Hawaii congressman Mark Takai, whose committee remained active over a year after his death while paying the salary of a former staffer.

Senator Orrin Hatch (Photo by Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Members with the most outgoing cash wouldn’t appear to be candidates for another office. Four of the top five on the list are at least 65 years old. Hatch, who has nearly $5 million in his campaign coffer, is 83.

For outgoing members of Congress with no intention of seeking public office again, there are other options for dispersing the money.

“If you’re not going to [return the money],” Noble said, “then you should, in a fair amount of time, dispose of that money by giving it to a charity or transferring it to the party committee or making political contributions within the limits if that’s what you want.”

But with limited FEC oversight, not much discourages former lawmakers from holding on to campaign money for personal use. It’s the FEC’s responsibility to enforce its own rules by seeking out and punishing those who violate them, Noble said.

“It’s a lack of will, frankly, on the FEC’s part.”

Earlier this month, after the Tampa Bay Times investigation, the Campaign Legal Center filed a petition asking the FEC to “revise and amend regulations pertaining to the personal use of campaign funds.”

The petition calls on the FEC to set a time limit on how long campaign accounts can remain open after a former candidate leaves the political sphere.

“If the FEC cracked down on this and started enforcing its regulations — and maybe it will — I think you’d see a lot less of it going on,” Noble said.

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