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Not couch cushion money: Former members sitting on $54 million

Year-end reports show unspent balances controlled by ex-lawmakers

Former Sen. Richard  C. Shelby, R-Ala., right, had $6.1 million left in campaign accounts he controls on Dec. 31, while former Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., had $1.3 million.
Former Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., right, had $6.1 million left in campaign accounts he controls on Dec. 31, while former Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., had $1.3 million. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Members of the 117th Congress who have since left Capitol Hill still hold nearly $54 million in leftover political money — cash they may tap to make contributions as lobbyists or bank for future runs. 

The majority of the money, $49.3 million, came from their principal reelection committees, according to a CQ Roll Call analysis of federal campaign reports through Dec. 31. Those funds cannot be used for personal expenses, but ex-lawmakers may use that money to make political donations and charitable contributions. They are under no time pressure to purge the money, either, and can sit on old campaign cash to use later, including for future runs for office. 

Another $4.5 million sits in recent ex-members’ leadership PACs, which were created so officials could raise money to support their parties and fellow candidates but have fewer restrictions and, campaign finance experts say, could be spent on personal uses.

Former California GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, who resigned Congress to run a Donald Trump-owned media enterprise, held the most cash on hand with $11.2 million in his campaign account, plus another roughly $330,000 in his leadership PAC, New PAC, the Federal Election Commission disclosures showed.

With the second most in the bank, longtime Alabama Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby still holds more than $6.1 million, even after big donations to Georgetown University, where his wife, Annette, had worked and to outside groups that helped boost his preferred successor, Sen. Katie Britt, also a Republican. 

Ohio Republican Rob Portman, who retired from his Senate seat, still had $3.1 million in campaign cash and another roughly $47,000 in his leadership PAC. Former Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont had $1.3 million in his two accounts.

Former Wyoming GOP Rep. Liz Cheney, who lost a primary over her vote to impeach Trump, converted her campaign committee into a PAC called the Great Task, which reported more than $4.7 million cash on hand as of Dec. 31. There was another $347,000 in Cowboy PAC, her leadership fund. Former Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who also supported impeachment, had nearly $3 million in leftover political money, records show.  

K Street bound

Other recently departed members who have decamped for K Street gigs have leftover money that they can use to make donations. Former Colorado Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who joined Holland & Knight, reported holding $637,000 between his campaign committee and leadership PAC. Former Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, who lost a GOP primary last year and has since become managing director at Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies, had $128,000. Democratic former Rep. Cheri Bustos, who did not run for reelection for her Illinois seat, holds about $730,000. She recently joined the firm Mercury. 

Ex-Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who chaired the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has forged a “strategic collaboration” with the lobbying firm Summit Strategies, though he doesn’t “currently” plan to register as a lobbyist, according to the firm’s announcement. He holds about $225,000 between his old campaign committee and leadership PAC, FEC records show. Former New York GOP Rep. John Katko reported more than $900,000 in his old campaign committee and a little extra change (about $14,000) in his leadership PAC. Katko joined the HillEast firm as a strategic adviser

“A lot of retiring members like to remain politically active,” said Jan Baran, a Republican campaign finance lawyer with Holtzman Vogel Baran Torchinsky & Josefiak. “You’ll see that for retiring members who go into lobbying, it becomes very convenient to have a personal PAC to remind your former colleagues of who you are and what you’re doing now.”

Most money in GOP accounts

Republicans control nearly 70 percent of the unspent cash, or $37.4 million, while Democrats control 30 percent, or $16.3 million. 

More than half of the money is in accounts controlled by senators and House members who retired or otherwise chose not to run in 2022. But 23 percent — largely because of Nunes’ $11.5 million — is held by a handful of members who quit Congress in the past two years.

Candidates who lost bids for reelection or other seats in November have just a fraction of the money, but House primary losers, led by Cheney’s nearly $5.1 million and New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s $1.2 million, had 13 percent of the total or $7.1 million.

Stephanie Murphy, a 44-year-old former Democratic House member from Florida who announced plans to retire when her Orlando-area district was being redrawn in 2021, held more than $1.3 million.

Some former members have not ruled out a future run for office, said Michael Toner, a former chairman of the FEC, who is a partner at the law firm Wiley. 

“These funds are like an insurance policy,” he said. “You can roll over campaign funds into any future run for federal office.” Some states also allow state candidates to tap federal campaign funds.

Former members who have ruled out a future run for office can make unlimited donations to national or state party committees, charities or nonprofit organizations from their old campaign accounts, Toner added.  

They can even use their old campaign money to travel for political purposes, such as to a national convention, he added, though not for a personal vacation. 

Erin Chlopak, senior director of campaign finance for the Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for political money overhaul, said she believes that the same ban on using campaign funds for personal use should apply to leadership PACs. 

“But the FEC has taken a different approach,” she noted. The legal center has issued reports about how leadership PACs fund expensive dinners and lavish events. 

Some former members do refund campaign donations, and they are required to return money donated for the general election if they lose in the primary. During the two-year election cycle, $15 million was refunded to individual donors and PACs, the FEC filings show, with nearly equal amounts — about $6.9 million each — coming from lawmakers who retired and those who lost primary elections.  

Former Illinois Democratic Rep. Marie Newman, who lost a member-vs.-member primary against Rep. Sean Casten, has refunded more than $100,000 and reported zero cash on hand Dec. 31. But former South Carolina Rep. Tom Rice, who like Cheney lost a primary after voting to impeach Trump, had about $273,000 left in his accounts after refunding $391,000. 

“We are closing the campaign account after losing my primary election in 2022 and have complied strictly to all of the FEC rules and guidance,” Newman said in an email. “As such, per FEC  rules, we have refunded money given toward the general and as part of closing the account, donated the leftover amount not used per FEC rules and guidance.”

Members who left the 117th Congress to join the Biden administration had a total of $1.4 million in their campaign funds on Dec. 31, with Marcia L. Fudge, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, holding the most, more than $960,000.

Rules apply even for the campaign accounts of lawmakers who died. The money can’t be converted for anyone’s personal use, but it may be donated to charities or political party committees. 

The campaign of Indiana Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski, who died in August in a motor vehicle crash, reported $1.1 million cash on hand Dec. 31. Republican Rep. Don Young, who represented Alaska until his death in March, had no money left after large donations to the Don Young Institute, according to campaign disclosures.

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