Appointees May Leave Surpluses

Posted November 19, 2008 at 6:43pm

Senators and House Members under consideration for Cabinet posts in President-elect Barack Obama’s administration are sitting on more than $20 million in surplus campaign cash that could give a significant early edge to both parties’ political committees.

According to their latest Federal Election Commission campaign finance statements, Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), both secretary of State shortlisters, were sitting on more than $5 million apiece — all or part of which could be transferred to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee or the Democratic National Committee.

If any of these Members wind up in the Obama administration, their surplus campaign funds could be coveted by an array of political committees.

“A candidate can transfer unlimited amounts to party committees, they can donate it charity or for any other lawful purpose,” Republican campaign finance lawyer Cleta Mitchell said on Wednesday.

Beyond Kerry and Clinton, possible secretary of Defense pick Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) had nearly $3 million in his campaign account as of Oct. 15. And Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a possible candidate for White House budget director, had nearly $300,000 in his campaign coffers, according to his most recent disclosure statements.

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), a rumored secretary of Veterans Affairs candidate, had $1.14 million in his campaign account as of Oct. 15.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), the recently tapped White House chief of staff, and Vice President-elect Joseph Biden, who has yet to resign his Delaware Senate seat, will both arrive at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW with significant campaign war chests.

Emanuel, a three-term Member who has never faced significant opposition for his North Side Chicago seat, had nearly $1.9 million as of Oct. 15, while Biden, who won a seventh term on Election Day, had about $1.2 million.

GOP campaign finance lawyer Jan Baran said that Emanuel, Biden and perhaps others who join the Obama administration could keep their campaign cash “on ice” to finance their post-White House political careers, as long as they don’t run afoul of administration ethics restrictions.

“They can invest the money, so they can earn interest, but they wouldn’t necessarily be taking contributions or spending money for political purposes while they’re serving in the administration,” Baran said. “They might have to pay someone to file FEC reports and tax returns.

“It would basically be on ice until their service is completed and then they could run for office again or convert it into a PAC,” he added.

Baran said that former Vice President Dan Quayle continued to keep his Senate account after departing for the White House in 1988, reviving it once he left the executive branch in early 1993.

Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox, a former Republican House Member from California, had more than $200,000 in his campaign account as of Oct. 1, according to FEC records.

Likewise, former Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), President George W. Bush’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, had more than $1.5 million in his account.

But Republican committees, too, could benefit from the exodus by lawmakers to the Obama administration. Possible Obama pick Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) had more than $900,000 in her campaign account as of Oct. 1, while Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) had roughly $2.1 million.

Retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) had about $176,000 in his account as of Oct. 1.

All three Republicans have been mentioned for top jobs in the Obama administration.

Campaign finance experts agree that a Clinton move to the State Department could present the most complicated legal scenario among the lawmakers rumored under consideration for administration jobs.

According to the FEC, Clinton in August transferred more than $6 million in general election presidential campaign funds to her Senate account, which had $5.99 million in cash as of Oct. 1.

But Clinton’s presidential account still remains nearly $8 million in the hole to outside firms, debt that could be transferred to her Senate account — and possibly wiped out using the available cash on hand.

“Could a campaign for one office transfer a debt obligation to another campaign for the same person?” FEC spokesman Bob Biersack said. “It’s conceivable, at least, but uncertain as to how the commission would view it.”

“There are a number steps involved,” Biersack added. “If they really wanted to be sure, they could ask the commission.”