The election is over. What happens to all that campaign cash?(Read article summary)
An estimated 5.8 billion was spent on the 2012 election. Where can candidates spend their leftover money? What is off limits?
Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/File
The election is over. For now, no more attack ads, no more barrage of emails begging for money.
But speaking of cash, what about the money raked in by campaigns that was left unspent?
Itâ€™s a little too early to call the grand total of all 2012 election spending, but theÂ Center for Responsive PoliticsÂ estimates it will be above $5.8 billion, 7 percent higher than 2008. â€śButÂ outside spending,â€ť the group says, â€śis a wild card that makes predictions tricky.â€ť
Outside spending includes money from corporations, unions, individuals, and other political groups. Investigative journalism siteÂ ProPublicaâ€™s PAC TrackÂ is trying to do the math, and right now saysÂ prominent political action committees spent a total of $581 million. That includes â€śSuper PACs,â€ť which because of aÂ 2010 Supreme Court ruling, opened the door for unlimited fundraising and spending.
As for the campaigns,Â The New York TimesÂ breaks it down pretty well, although they pair up the campaigns and their political partiesâ€™ spending with their biggest Super PAC supporters. (Super PACs canâ€™t legally coordinate with the campaigns â€“ you wonâ€™t hear Obama or Romney say â€śI approve this messageâ€ť at the end, but the money is still supporting them.) That means thereâ€™s some overlap with the ProPublica numbers, but it gives us a ballpark idea: all told, somewhere above $2 billion between the two major parties. In 2008,Â PoliticoÂ said it was unprecedented for that number to be more than $1 billion.
The NYT tallies include data through mid-October and may not match whatâ€™s finally reported to the Federal Election Commission, but hereâ€™s what we know so farâ€¦
So what happens to that monster chunk of change remaining? We askedÂ the Federal Election Commission,Â an independent agency that regulates campaign finance.
How leftover money can be spent
Hereâ€™s what an FEC spokesperson told us:
"Surplus funds may be used in connection with a future election. Funds may be transferred between authorized committees of the same candidate (for example, from a previous campaign committee to a current campaign committee) without limit as long as the committee making the transfer has no â€śnet debts outstanding.â€ť CFR 110.3(c) and 116.2(c)(2). Alternatively, a candidate may redesignate a former campaign committee as the principal campaign committee of his or her current campaign and use the excess funds of the previous campaign in the current campaign.
Pages 51-57 of the FECâ€™s Campaign Guide for Congressional Candidates and Committees (http://www.fec.gov/pdf/candgui.pdf) discuss the permissible, personal and prohibited uses of campaign funds. Pages 117-121 discuss winding down activity."
This explains a few things. One, debts have to be paid first â€“ and there isnâ€™t always a surplus of funds to cover them.Â Hillary Clinton is still paying offÂ her $25 million 2008 presidential campaign debt. (But sheâ€™sÂ down to just $73,000Â as of mid-October.) According to Politico, so areÂ Rudy GiulianiÂ and many 2012 Republican contenders: Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain. (Ron Paul, however, has a $2 million surplus.) Want to look up other candidatesâ€™ financial situations? Go crazy at theÂ FEC disclosure page.
Second, the FECâ€™s statement tells us money can be used for future campaigns. President Obama canâ€™t win a third term â€“ but could he help Hillary Clinton pay off her campaign debt?
Chapter 8 of theÂ FEC campaign guide, Expenditures and Other Uses of Campaign Funds, says money can be donated to charities and state and local candidates. It also allows â€śunlimited transfers to any national, state or local party committee.â€ť But for national candidates, thereâ€™s a limit of $2,000. So thatâ€™s out.
Could those funds be passed on to Obamaâ€™s VP, Joe Biden? (On Election Day,Â he jokedÂ he might run for president again.) This is possible, but not directly â€“ the money would have to go to the Democratic National Committee, which could spend it to support Biden.
The FEC guide also tells us the money could be refunded to donors, spent on gifts (or â€śdonations of nominal valueâ€ť) to non-family members, moving expenses after leaving office, home security for officeholders, and work-related â€śtravel expenses for a federal officeholder and his or her accompanying spouse and children,â€ť although aÂ 2007 lawÂ puts some restrictions on that. (Interestingly, campaign cash can also be usedÂ priorÂ to the election to pay candidates a salary â€“ but not to incumbents, and itâ€™s capped at the lesser of what they made last year or what the office theyâ€™re seeking pays.)
Forbidden uses of campaign cash
The big no-no, of course, is personal use of political contributions. Campaign cash canâ€™t be spent on expenses that would exist even if the (former) candidate hadnâ€™t run for office. Thatâ€™s a broad definition, but the guide spells out some specific examples including college tuition, groceries, funeral expenses, clothes (excluding stuff like campaign T-shirts),Â mortgageÂ or rent payments, leisure and entertainment, and gym and country club dues.
Just a couple of decades ago, former candidatesÂ couldÂ spend money on this stuff.Â Factcheck.orgÂ says, â€śRetiring federal lawmakers used to be able to pocket extra cash and use it for cars, vacations, clothes, pet grooming, whatever â€“ but that changed in 1989 with the passage of theÂ Ethics Reform Act.â€ť
Brandon Ballenger is a writer forÂ Money Talks News, a consumer/personal finance TV news feature that airs in about 80 cities as well as around the Web. This column first appeared in Money Talks News.