Cracking the whip of accountability in Washington has never been easy, especially when a lawmaker is calling for more oversight for members from their own party. But one senator has dreams of being the hero that D.C. needs and is stepping up to slay an army of zombies — specifically, zombie campaigns.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) recently introduced the Z.O.M.B.I.E. (Zeroing Out Money for Buying Influence after Elections) Act, which would restrict how former candidates and members of Congress could spend leftover campaign funds after their campaign days were over.
Currently, loopholes in federal election law allow former lawmakers to keep their campaign coffers open indefinitely, and some of have spend millions of dollars in leftover contributions on items to subsidize their post-Congressional lives.
In 2020, NBCLX identified both Democrats and Republicans who'd been spending their former donors’ dollars on high-end travel, five-star restaurants and technology for their homes. Some members even used the campaign cash to buy tickets to events and send questionable payments to family members after they left office.
Bennet believes closing the zombie campaign loopholes would be a common-sense reform to prevent politicians from putting profits over their constituents.
“It is frustrating, and I feel like we're wasting the American people’s time when we don't pass something so obviously beneficial and so obviously useful,” he told NBCLX.
What is a zombie campaign, and why should I care?
The Federal Election Commission suggests former politicians take no more than six months to wind down affairs after their campaigns end and release all excess funds to their original donors, other political organizations or nonprofits.
Many former members of Congress choose to give leftover cash to national political parties, while others choose local charities or universities in their district.
But the FEC doesn’t require politicians to comply with that six-month timeline, and it doesn’t do much to enforce their personal-use ban on campaign funds.
That opens the door for legal exploitation of campaign finance rules by some departing lawmakers, which Washington watchdogs have long warned creates a dangerous profit motive in the Capitol that encourages corruption and buries constituents’ priorities under those of wealthy donors.
In many cases, former members of Congress trade their elected jobs for more lucrative lobbying jobs and then use their old donors’ dollars to cut checks to sitting members of Congress whom they are lobbying. So instead of supporting an official they once believed in, those donors wind up inadvertently supporting special interest clients.
NBCLX also identified former lawmakers — from each major party — who continued using their old campaign war chests after taking jobs to lobby for foreign interests. In many cases, the lawmakers were using those funds to advance the interests of America’s adversaries in Washington.
"If somebody collects campaign donations for one purpose, which is to run for office, and then they use those donations to advance a lobbying cause after they leave office, it’s just not right," Bennet said.
“I know [our bill] is ultimately going to pass. It's just going to take a while to get it done," he added.
Who’s taken advantage of zombie campaigns?
A few examples of Zombies in recent years:
- Former Rep. John Ratcliff (R-Texas), who also served as the director of national intelligence under President Trump, pays his wife a $36,000 salary to manage the campaign’s books, a job that experts say shouldn’t take more than a couple hours a week.
- Former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), now the country’s ambassador to NASA, directed hundreds of thousands of donor dollars to a longtime associate to “consult” on his dormant campaign after he lost in 2018.
- Former Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wisconsin), who appeared on MTV’s "The Real World" prior to his Congressional career and has worked as a lobbyist and TV analyst since, has spent tens of thousands from his war chest on high-end travel and meals since resigning from Congress in 2019.
- Former Rep. Joseph Kennedy II (D-Massachusetts) still has a million dollars in his campaign account even though he hasn’t served in Congress in more than 23 years.
- Former Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Florida) was fined by the FEC in 2019 after nearly a decade of spending on travel, meals and membership fees to a Washington social club. But even after the fine, he continued paying his wife $1,000 a month to submit his expenses to the FEC.
Ratcliff’s wife, Michele, told NBCLX in a statement: “This active campaign committee is and will continue to remain in full compliance with all FEC requirements.”
None of the other former lawmakers mentioned responded to multiple requests for comment.
Why doesn’t the Federal Election Commission stop the abuse?
In 2019, the FEC began sending letters to zombie campaigns, informing them of possible campaign finance violations. Recipients included high-profile former lawmakers, as well as former presidential candidates.
In a few rare cases, like Stearns', the commission held hearings on questionable spending. But the notoriously partisan makeup of the commission, combined with a lack of penalties written into law, mean enforcement actions are extremely rare.
Why doesn’t Congress do anything about it?
If you hadn’t noticed, Congress has had a hard time agreeing on election reforms. And while you might think a loophole abused by both parties might be easier to form some bipartisan consensus around, the only consensus on tightening what former lawmakers can do with leftover campaign funds has been that neither Democrats nor Republicans have shown much interest in new restrictions.
In 2019, House members Kathy Castor (D-Florida), Gus Bilirakis (D-Florida) and Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland) introduced legislation that would largely eradicate zombie campaigns. It was later added into the Democrats’ massive elections reform bill, the For the People Act, but did not get a vote in the Senate.
Bennet introduced a similar bill in 2020, which also died without a Senate hearing.
While NBCLX convinced some former lawmakers to donate excess funds to charities at start of the pandemic, the majority of the zombies chose to keep hoarding their money, and the majority of their counterparts currently in office have shown little interest in passing a rule that would limit their future abilities to personally benefit from their fundraising.
What exactly is the ZOMBIE Act?
Bennet’s new bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), would require members to disburse all leftover campaign funds within six months of leaving office or immediately if they register as a lobbyist or foreign agent.
He predicts the bill will pass one day, but it may not be soon, given Washington’s current priorities.
“We're always in competition with everybody's short attention span ... and a lack of focus on stuff that the American people really care about,” Bennet said. “I think this is a real opportunity for us to make a difference.
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and state politics for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont, and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at email@example.com or on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.