It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to keep ex-lawmakers from using their old campaign accounts as a slush fund for personal expenses. But apparently it does — which is why two local members of Congress deserve credit for their bipartisan bill that would end this abuse of the elections system.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, are co-sponsoring the Honest Elections and Campaign, No Gain Act. The measure requires departing lawmakers to close their campaign accounts within two years, and it bans payments to family members once they leave office.
The bill is in response to a Tampa Bay Times/10News WTSP investigation in January that found about 100 so-called "zombie campaigns" — accounts left open by former politicians that were used to finance their lifestyles, advance their careers and pay family members.
The Times/WTSP investigation found former lawmakers and candidates spending leftover donations on airline tickets, club memberships, cellphones, parking and office equipment. One former South Florida lawmaker spent $450 at a club luncheon. An ex-Ohio congressman spent $4,555 on college football tickets. Ex-lawmakers lavished tens of thousands of dollars on to family members. One consultant took in more than $100,000 from an ex-legislator who had already died.
The spending makes a mockery of a bedrock principle of America’s campaign finance laws — that donations be spent only on politics, not a candidate’s personal lifestyle. By law, donations are to be spent on campaigning and the cost of maintaining an office. Unspent contributions may be refunded to donors or passed on to other candidates, political committees or charities. Twenty of the campaigns identified by the Times/WTSP stayed active for more than a decade. Eight kept spending even after the candidate they supposedly represented had already died. And none of the spending was formally investigated by the Federal Elections Commission.
Under the bill, the clock on the two-year period to wind down the campaign would begin the day after the qualifying deadline for the next election. That offers plenty of time for campaigns to settle any legitimate outstanding debts. Ex-lawmakers would be required to close campaign accounts before becoming lobbyists. As with current law, any unspent donations could be refunded to donors or given to charities or political parties. But the measure would bar candidates from transferring money into their own political action committees, which is allowed under current regulations.
These are reasonable restrictions that should curb some of the worst abuses. Donors should be funding a candidacy — not a lifestyle. And keeping these accounts open is nothing more than statutorily enabled graft. At a time of hyper-partisanship, Bilirakis and Castor have come together to improve public confidence in elections and government. Both parties should see an opportunity to clean up their act and to improve Congress’ image with the voting public.