Editorial: End 'zombie campaigns'

The U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 15, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.
The U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 15, 2019. Bloomberg photo by Andrew Harrer.
Published March 15, 2019

Winning an election should not be the gift that keeps on giving, yet another federal complaint was filed this week about so-called "zombie campaigns." A nonpartisan watchdog group said a political action committee created by former U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw of Jacksonville spent leftover contributions on Apple products, expensive dinners and a $5,000 trip to Disney World. The House has passed reforms in a sweeping campaign reform bill, and the Senate should do the same.

Federal law prohibits the personal use of campaign funds. But a 2018 Tampa Bay Times/10News WTSP investigation found more than 100 former politicians ran "zombie campaigns" that kept spending long after their political careers had ended - often financing their lifestyles, paying family members or advancing new careers.

One of the journalists involved in that investigation, Noah Pransky, reported in the Times on Wednesday that Crenshaw's spending followed a different pattern from the earlier cases, which focused on candidates who spent money from their campaign accounts years after leaving office. A month after leaving Congress in 2017, Crenshaw converted his candidate campaign fund, with $59,867 remaining, into a political action committee, which has more freedom on spending. The committee, "Ander PAC," was organized to benefit numerous candidates, according to a 2017 filing. But it collected just a single $450 donation before being shut down two years later. During that time, the committee spent tens of thousands of dollars on phones, meals and travel.

Abusing campaign funds is abuse however it's arranged. The latest complaint comes just days after the House passed H.R. 1, a wide-ranging voting rights and ethics bill that also targets zombie campaigns. The measure would, among other things, provide public financing of campaigns, automatically register new voters and support a constitutional amendment to end Citizens United, the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark 2010 decision that helped unleash a torrent of unlimited spending in political campaigns. Two bay area lawmakers who have targeted zombie campaigns, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, worked together to attach an amendment to H.R. 1 that would close a loophole allowing ex-lawmakers to sit on unspent donations. But Bilirakis opposed the final bill backed by Democrats who control the House that passed March 8 on a party-line vote of 234 to 193.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he won't allow a vote on H.R. 1 in that chamber. The measure includes numerous provisions that would benefit Americans across the board, from making voting easier to cracking down on election fraud. McConnell has the obligation to offer a counter-proposal or to allow the Senate to vote on the House bill.

As a practical matter, however, supporters of ending zombie campaigns need to attach that measure to less controversial legislation. There is bipartisan support for ending the shameful practices the Times/WTSP exposed - from former lawmakers and candidates spending leftover donations on airline tickets, limos, club memberships and computers to lawmakers who were still spending more than a decade after leaving office.

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These are legalized scams that undermine public confidence in government and elections. The Democratic-led House has sent the right signal, and now Republicans need to step up and take a simple step to upgrade the image of Congress.