Some retiring lawmakers could walk away with a big green parting gift


Updated 12:15 p.m. 2/24/2014 to include the leadership PAC of retiring Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich. Note 4/1/14: figures in the story have changed as new campaign finance disclosures have been filed. Check the table for the most up-to-date figures

More than 20 departing members of Congress could be walking away from their political careers with a special parting gift — a combined total of $828,474 in campaign donations that they’re allowed to keep for personal use.

A Sunlight analysis of data in our Real-Time FEC tracker shows that’s how much money remains in the House retirees’ “leadership PACs,” special committees that almost every member of Congress establishes. While the lawmakers can’t spend leadership PAC money on their own campaigns, they use it to advance their careers in other important ways, such as raising and distributing funds to colleagues in competitive races — colleagues who can later be counted on to vote their benefactors into committee chairmanships and House leadership posts.

Leadership PACs differ from standard candidate campaign committees in another important way: The money they contain can be pocketed by members for their personal use once they leave office. The tendency of lawmakers — even sitting ones — to use leadership PACs as income supplements was the subject of a segment by 60 Minutes last fall. That prompted Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., to introduce a bill that would rein in the practice. So far, Harris’ proposal has attracted two co-sponsors and no action, as you can see from the legislation’s page on OpenCongress.

Using our Real-Time FEC tracker, Sunlight took a look at the 22 representatives who have resigned or are retiring from the 113th Congress with no announced plans of seeking other political office and who have leadership PACs. The group includes former Rep. Trey Radel, R-Fla., who still has $17,120 in his leadership committee after resigning over a charge of cocaine possession. The full sortable list is below.

(Note: Cash on hand reflects the figures in the committee’s most recent filing. Clicking the committee name will take you to the Real-Time FEC page for that committee, which will automatically update as new filings come in.)

If past is prologue, these lawmakers will have wide leeway in how they use the leftover cash in their leadership committees’ vaults.

Retiring Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., has already faced scrutiny for allegedly improper use of leadership funds. His announced exit comes in the midst of a House Ethics inquiry into Andrews’ use of leadership funds to pay for airplane tickets to Scotland and wedding gifts for friends, among other possible concerns. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer on the New Jersey congressman, Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center told the publication, “He can use those funds to buy a yacht and sail off into the sunset if he wants to.”

While some may be leaving the public sphere for good, it is a certainty that at least a few of these politicians will be taking their legislative expertise and rolodexes to the influence industry, in which case it can be useful to have a large cash pool for contributions to friendly members. Ex-Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican, left her congressional post just weeks after her last re-election for a major lobbying concern.

A Sunlight analysis of Federal Election Commission filings shows some past retirees making liberal use of their leadership PAC money. Former Rep. Bill Delahunt, D-Mass., left Congress in 2011, but his leadership PAC, the Campaign for Change Committee, still held over $400,000 in cash at the start of 2014. The committee earns stock gains, dividends and interest, and doles out political contributions, gifts to charity and even covers the rent for Delahunt’s lobbying firm, the Delahunt Group. As first reported by the Boston Globe in 2011, Campaign for Change has paid a group called the Triplet Irrevocable Trust $3,500 a month for rental of a property in Quincy, Mass. since Delahunt’s departure from congress. The group is in fact Delahunt’s family trust and benefits his ex-wife and daughter.

While Campaign for Change has disbursed hundreds of thousands of dollars after its post-Congress repurposing, the leadership committees of some retired members simply sit pat for years, quietly accruing money and making relatively few contributions.

Former Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill., retired in 2012 and announced the creation of a boutique lobbying firm in March 2013. His United for Progress Leadership Committee spent a little more than $11,000 in 2013, ending the year with nearly $250,000 in cash on hand.

Likewise the Committee for Southwest Virginia, associated with former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va. — who is now the head of lobbying firm Sidley Austin’s government affairs practice — spent a paltry $500 total last year, all on one donation to a candidate for supervisor in Mouth of Wilson, Va. The committee entered 2014 with just over $240,000 in cash on hand.

Future plans for most of the 113th’s retiring representatives are not clear. Though the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act technically requires members to fill out a publicly available “Notification of Negotiations or Agreement for Future Employment” form if engaged in job negotiations while still serving in Congress, Billy House of the National Journal reports that these forms are rarely filed.