Senators Will Retire, but Their Money Lives On

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 03: U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) speaks to members of the media outside the West Wing of the White House after a meeting with President Barack Obama September 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama told reporters at the beginning of the meeting that he was confident he could get enough votes for his plan for military actions against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria.
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
Jan. 5, 2014, 7 a.m.

Sev­en sen­at­ors will be call­ing it quits this year after a com­bined 168 years in the cham­ber. But their money will con­tin­ue to work.

The mil­lions of dol­lars that re­tir­ing law­makers hold in cam­paign ac­counts and PACs will go to fund­ing col­leagues and party com­mit­tees, main­tain­ing in­flu­ence, and sus­tain­ing polit­ic­al al­li­ances — help­ful stuff for life after Con­gress.

For ex­ample, Demo­crat­ic Sen. Carl Lev­in of Michigan gave to a host of polit­ic­ally vul­ner­able col­leagues, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign fin­ance dis­clos­ures. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who’s re­tir­ing and will be headed to China as the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s new am­bas­sad­or, re­fun­ded $100,000 to the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee.

Call it a rite of re­tire­ment among law­makers. Just as sen­at­ors be­fore them donated to their cam­paigns, so re­tir­ing law­makers are ex­pec­ted to donate to vul­ner­able mem­bers and prom­ising chal­lengers with­in their party, said Dav­id Vance of the Cam­paign Leg­al Cen­ter.

Re­tir­ing law­makers have great flex­ib­il­ity in what they can do with leftover cam­paign money. They can pay cam­paign debt, hire con­sult­ants, donate to char­it­ies, help polit­ic­al al­lies — just about any­thing but spend­ing on per­son­al use.

The prac­tice of li­quid­at­ing — or bank­ing — cam­paign and lead­er­ship PAC cash has a well-doc­u­mented his­tory. Tom DeLay, the former House ma­jor­ity lead­er, re­portedly hired a me­dia con­sult­ant, while former Demo­crat­ic Sen. Evan Bayh of In­di­ana still has about $9 mil­lion in his cam­paign cof­fers, ac­cord­ing to the Fed­er­al Elec­tion Com­mis­sion.

So far, with the FEC just reach­ing its year-end fil­ing dead­line and some re­ports not yet pos­ted on­line, re­tir­ing Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors have been more gen­er­ous giv­ing to cam­paign com­mit­tees and vul­ner­able mem­bers than have their Re­pub­lic­an col­leagues.

Baucus’s lead­er­ship com­mit­tee, Gla­ci­er PAC, gave $15,000 to the DSCC in Septem­ber and al­most $150,000 to Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate in­cum­bents, in­clud­ing Al Franken of Min­nesota, Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hamp­shire. The PAC has also giv­en $2,500 to South Dakota Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate can­did­ate Rick Wei­l­and.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, who left the Sen­ate in Feb­ru­ary and began 2013 with nearly $1 mil­lion in his cam­paign ac­count, donated $139,250 to the DSCC.

Lev­in gave to 11 Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates, all after he an­nounced his re­tire­ment, ac­cord­ing to FEC re­cords. Lev­in, a 36-year Sen­ate vet­er­an with a repu­ta­tion as a lov­er of the in­sti­tu­tion who even voted against Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id’s so-called nuc­le­ar op­tion last year, does not have a lead­er­ship PAC. In­stead, his cam­paign con­trib­uted a com­bined $35,000 to Demo­crats, in­clud­ing Sens. Mark Be­gich of Alaska and Chris­toph­er Coons of Delaware, and Rep. Bruce Bra­ley of Iowa, who’s run­ning for the seat held by the re­tir­ing Sen. Tom Har­kin.

Sen. Tim John­son, D-S.D., gave $15,000 to the South Dakota Demo­crat­ic Party but still has $1 mil­lion in cash in his cam­paign war chest. In John­son’s case, his son Brendan, U.S. at­tor­ney for South Dakota, has fre­quently been men­tioned as a rising polit­ic­al star and was at the cen­ter of spec­u­la­tion about his fath­er’s suc­cessor be­fore opt­ing not to run last spring.

John­son’s lead­er­ship PAC, South Dakota First, gave $15,000 to the DSCC be­fore he an­nounced his re­tire­ment plans in March. He’s also donated $10,000 to Wei­l­and.

Har­kin’s lead­er­ship com­mit­tee, To Or­gan­ize a Ma­jor­ity PAC, con­trib­uted $92,350 to vul­ner­able Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents.

Not all the re­tir­ing sen­at­ors have taken that path. Sen. Jay Rock­e­feller, D-W.Va., who is re­tir­ing after 30 years in the Sen­ate, has doled out re­l­at­ively little so far, giv­ing $2,000 as an in-kind con­tri­bu­tion to now-Sen. Ed­ward Mar­key of Mas­sachu­setts.

Only two Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans have an­nounced their re­tire­ment. With the GOP seek­ing a ma­jor­ity in 2014, the two parties have taken dif­fer­ent ap­proaches to dol­ing out cam­paign cash.

Sen. Saxby Cham­b­liss of Geor­gia used his lead­er­ship PAC, the Re­pub­lic­an Ma­jor­ity Fund, to give $15,000 to the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee and dis­trib­uted nearly $100,000 to GOP Sen­ate can­did­ates and in­cum­bents, in­clud­ing Reps. Shel­ley Moore Capito in West Vir­gin­ia and Tom Cot­ton in Arkan­sas.

Prair­i­e­land PAC, the lead­er­ship com­mit­tee for Sen. Mike Jo­hanns, R-Neb., gave $5,000 to the cam­paign of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and the same amount to the Sen­ate cam­paign of Mike Rounds in South Dakota.

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