WASHINGTON — Ex-lawmakers working as lobbyists or advisers to those seeking to influence federal policy are pumping leftover campaign funds into the accounts of their former congressional colleagues — including colleagues who oversee the industries the ex-lawmakers now represent, a USA TODAY review of campaign-finance records shows.
The donations are legal. Federal law allows former members of Congress to keep campaign accounts active and dole out the money to candidates, political parties and charities.
However, critics of the practice, such as Meredith McGehee of the non-profit Campaign Legal Center, call the accounts "political slush funds," that are tapped to curry favor with lawmakers.
"Being able to give money is a huge advantage in establishing yourself as a lobbyist," McGehee said. "Money buys you face time. But this isn't money that's coming from their pockets. This is money other people have given them that they are using to set up their next careers."
Former representative Jim McCrery, who left Congress earlier this year and advises clients on tax, trade and health-care issues as a partner in the Washington lobbying firm Capitol Counsel, contributed $70,500 to lawmakers, political action committees and party committees during the first six months of 2009, Federal Election Commission records show. McCrery is not a lobbyist, but said he intends to register in January.
People in lobbying firms "are expected to give campaign contributions," said McCrery, a Louisiana Republican.
Having leftover campaign funds to donate, he said, "gives you a leg up to the extent that you don't have to take it out of your own income."
Recipients of McCrery's campaign money include Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, the top Republicans on the panels that oversee tax policy and health care. McCrery said his chief goal was to help other Republicans.
Former Democratic representative Bud Cramer, chairman of the lobbying firm Wexler & Walker, donated $75,000 in leftover funds to federal candidates this year, including $2,000 to a Republican — Sen. Richard Shelby of his home state Alabama. Shelby is the ranking member of the Senate banking committee, and the firm's clients include American Express and the Consumer Credit Industry Association, according to its website. Cramer, who left office this year, did not return calls. He is not a registered lobbyist.
Others who left office years ago continue to use campaign funds to spread the wealth. Former Colorado congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, who retired after the 1996 election, gave nearly $225,000 to candidates during a decade of lobbying — including $4,000 to fellow Democrats this year before retiring as CEO of the Association of American Publishers.
The donations were not about buying influence but a chance to "go to fundraisers and say hello to friends," she said. "We kicked it out at $500 and $1,000 at a time," Schroeder said of her contributions over the years. "That won't get you very far in the lobbying world."