When Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-FL) left Congress in 2017—with the eight-term lawmaker destined for a D.C. lobbying gig—he had something at his disposal that most people don’t: a campaign bank account.
Crenshaw went on to use that account for pricey dinners, stays at the Walt Disney World Four Seasons, a luxury resort in Colorado Springs, the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, even his membership dues at the Capitol Hill Club.
Using a campaign account for those expenses is, of course, illegal. And Crenshaw got caught. Last month, he entered a conciliation agreement with the Federal Election Commission, in which he agreed to pay more than $13,000 to the U.S. Treasury for the expenses, as well as a $3,950 fine.
But even though former lawmakers are not allowed to use unspent campaign money to live it up and assist in their lobbying careers—the Capitol Hill Club is a favorite haunt among beltway Republicans looking to wield influence—the very fact that Crenshaw had a campaign account, as a 77-year-old politician-turned-lobbyist with no apparent intention of ever running for office, was perfectly legal.
That is, it’s legal at the moment.
Two Democrats Senators, Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), are introducing legislation this Thursday that would outlaw so-called “zombie” campaign accounts for any politician who does not file for the next election six months after they leave office—and would require any former politician who wishes to register as a lobbyist to shut down their campaign account immediately.
The legislation, titled the “Zeroing Out Money for Buying Influence after Elections (ZOMBIE) Act,” is a reboot of a bill that Bennet offered last year. And it would extend the requirements to an official’s leadership PAC, such as the one belonging to former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), who last year was cited for paying personal expenses in an FEC complaint filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“When a politician is no longer running for office or registers as a lobbyist, they shouldn’t have millions in the bank leftover from their old campaigns,” Bennet said in a statement to The Daily Beast, which was later posted in a press release announcing the bill. “These zombie accounts help fuel the pay-to-play culture in Washington that is corroding the American people’s faith in our government. My bill with Senator Warren would zero out these accounts for good.”
The proposed act stipulates that candidates would have six months to file to run in the next election, or else close their accounts. It also would require them to shutter their campaigns before they register as a lobbyist or foreign agent.
The Daily Beast previously collaborated with nonpartisan watchdog the Campaign Legal Center on a report that identified at least 17 former officeholders with zombie accounts who went on to become lobbyists for foreign governments. At least nine of them gave leftover donor money to legislators they lobbied on behalf of those foreign clients.
It’s a perennial issue. But while the FEC has at times shown interest in cracking down, those efforts have not been broadly effective. Last month, the agency issued its plethora of annual notices to zombie campaigns asking what they plan to do with their leftover dough—including Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) 2016 presidential committee and the campaign belonging to former Rep. Tom Price (R-GA), who in 2017 resigned as Donald Trump’s Secretary of Health and Human Services after racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in private flights.
Sometimes it goes the other way, with candidates raising money off of dead campaigns. Earlier this year, former presidential contender Kanye West got flagged for soliciting campaign donations (i.e., selling merch to teenage hypebeasts) after he paid down his outstanding debts.
And then there’s the case of former President Donald Trump, whose old campaign and leadership PAC have raised a combined $72 million this year.
Trump, whose 2020 campaign obscured more than $700 million in spending through a shell company, has raised that $72 million while leaving his faithful in suspense about a 2024 bid. In a ZOMBIE Act world, he would be forced to clear out that cash or fess up about his intentions.
As for the leftover cash in these other zombie accounts, that would either go back to the original donors, or go to charities—as long as it isn’t helping the former candidate start their own foundation, or if the charity does not employ their relatives. (Last month former Rep. Trey Gowdy’s (R-SC) still-active campaign gave more than $900,000 to a charity where his wife is on the board.)
One issue the bill does not address with zombie accounts is a bit trickier: Debts. The bill does not touch cases where an old campaign account has no money left and still owes outstanding costs—which could allow the committee to continue raising money while making payments for various associated expenses, such as travel and events. And if a campaign does end with cash on hand, the bill prioritizes debt above all else, with a hard six-month deadline to repay before the account is forced to close, regardless of whether its obligations have been met.
This fact could provide a loophole, or at least an argument, for keeping these vehicles alive.
Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for instance, owed millions of dollars after his failed 2012 presidential bid. And while the zombie campaign has managed to raise nearly $600,000 in the nine intervening years, it also spent nearly all of it along the way, including for vague consulting fees, travel, and meals at steak and oyster houses.
Today, the Gingrich campaign has $1,243.64 in the bank, and it owes $4.6 million.