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Wake up, Congress. Time to end zombie campaigns | Editorial

Reps. Gus Bilirakis and Kathy Castor are still pushing the House to take up the reform legislation. It’s past time.

Public office should not provide a lifelong subsidy for former politicians or a permanent entitlement program for friends and family. But that’s exactly what it’s become for some politicians who continue to spend campaign donations long after they’ve left office. Two Tampa Bay area lawmakers should be commended for renewing their bipartisan push to end this abusive practice. It’s nothing but a legalized scam that tarnishes the image of Congress and public service as a whole.

Reps. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, are calling on the House Administration Committee to hear a bill that would require outgoing lawmakers to close their campaign accounts within two years. The measure also bans payments to family members once they leave office. As the Tampa Bay Times’ Christopher O’Donnell recently reported, the legislation was filed in response to a Tampa Bay Times / 10News WTSP investigation that turned up about 100 so–called zombie campaigns — those campaign accounts kept open by former politicians to finance their lifestyles, advance new careers and pay family members. A similar bill in 2018 failed to get a hearing in the then–Republican controlled House. The chamber is now under Democratic control.

The latest move to shut down these operations reflects growing concern over the abuse of campaign funds. The Times/WTSP investigation in 2018 chronicled how candidates had spent campaign money years or decades after leaving office. Federal law prohibits the personal use of campaign funds. But the Times/WTSP investigation found more than 100 former politicians ran zombie campaigns that kept spending long after their political careers had ended. Leftover donations were spent on everything from airline tickets, club memberships and cell phones to a limo trip, parking and new computers. Twenty former lawmakers were still spending leftover donations more than a decade after they left office.

The investigation prompted the Federal Election Commission to announce in 2018 that it would crack down on these dormant campaigns. In May, the FEC sent letters to more than a dozen campaigns, inquiring why their accounts were still open and in some cases flagging specific expenses. The bad publicity and the threat of enforcement proceedings has helped; federal records show that at least seven campaigns highlighted by the Times/WTSP shut down on their own after the investigation was published. But it shouldn’t take a drawn-out administrative process or bad press to coerce these politicians and former office-holders to do the right thing.

The dismissive reaction by some former lawmakers to the commission’s crackdown shows why only a change in law will do. The bill proposed by Castor and Bilirakis would also ban converting these campaign funds into a political action committee, which would simply be another loophole for allowing these same spending abuses. This is an opportunity for lawmakers to pass a bipartisan bill that is good for the political process and Congress’s image. Public service should not be a cash machine — and certainly not for years after former lawmakers leave the stage.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.