Why are lame ducks still raising campaign funds?

The Detroit Free Press takes a look at the books of 22 state lawmakers

MICHIGAN — Who pays attention to lame-duck politicians during a restive election year? The Detroit Free Press does, and the result is a revealing report by Paul Egan, the Lansing bureau chief, on politicians who can’t run for re-election, but who nonetheless are raking in the fundraising dollars.

It’s a welcome look at some ambiguities and quirks of Michigan campaign finance law and a reminder that the work of following the money does not end as elected officials near the end of their tenures.

Egan, whose piece appeared on the Free Press’s front page on Sunday, focused the article on state Sen. Roger Kahn (R—Saginaw) who raised $177,000 for his campaign committee in 2011, more than any other Michigan senator. Kahn is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election. He also happens to chair the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Altogether, Egan counted 22 lame-duck state legislators who last year raised $568,000 and held 42 fundraising events. Nearly all of that money has been spent, though the funds are, Egan wrote, “primarily intended for election-related expenses.” This is a bipartisan and bicameral state of affairs: in a sidebar, the top ten lame-duck fundraisers are highlighted: four senators and six representatives, four Democrats and six Republicans.

The Free Press article turned to a campaign finance watchdog for insight on the numbers:

Aggressive fundraising by lame-duck officeholders is controversial because a major donor motive—helping an officeholder get re-elected—no longer exists.

“It really makes it a more direct connection between money and policy,” said Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a Lansing-based watchdog group.

It’s not surprising that Michigan’s two top lame-duck fundraisers are the appropriations committee chairmen in the Senate and House, he said.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m supporting you because I know we see eye to eye on my issues, and I want to make sure you’re re-elected’,” Robinson said. “That’s over.”

This is an important point—which is why it is surprising that in his otherwise solid article, Egan does not illuminate who exactly are the largest donors to lame-duck lawmakers. While the piece alerts readers to the possibility of influence (or the appearance thereof) it neglects to point out who is behind the donations. A quick look at Sen. Kahn’s 2011 campaign finance report, for example, shows contributions from numerous healthcare-related groups ($6,000 from Blue Cross/Blue Shield PAC, $5,000 each from SEIU Healthcare MI PAC and from Healthcare Assn. of Michigan PAC). There are also, of the 505 donations listed, two hundred or so small (less than $100) donations from Saginaw-area residents.

Egan talked with Sen. Kahn, who held five fundraisers for his campaign committee in 2011, and told Egan that he

continues to raise money for three main reasons: to pay for incidental office expenses, such as meals with constituents; to help other Senate Republicans get elected; and to build and maintain a political war chest that could be used if he decides to seek a different office.

Egan went on to detail—drawing from Kahn’s 2011 campaign finance report—how some of Kahn’s funds were used, including $1,400 spent in a single day at a candy store for gifts to attendees of a Valentine’s Day fundraiser, and $19,000 to reimburse himself for in-kind loans to his own campaign, most of which are unspecified in the records. Such expenditures are legal in Michigan, which has relatively lax restrictions, but if Sen. Kahn failed to specify what he bought with the in-kind loans, he would violate reporting requirements, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State told Egan.

Egan explained to readers that a state senator in Michigan could run for another state office and shift money from one campaign committee to the other—but they are supposed to set up a new committee as soon as they know what office they will seek. Rich Robinson suggested to Egan that politicians delay while using their existing committees because they don’t want to make their political plans public. If Kahn, for example, shifted money from one campaign fund to another, Egan reported, “donors who gave in 2011 would have to count those donations against what they could give him for any new office” (here would have been a good place for Egan to tell readers what donation limits are—for individuals, it’s $1000 to a state Senate candidate in an election cycle and $500 to a State representative). What the money cannot do is shift from a state campaign fund to a federal one. (Sen. Kahn says he is considering a challenge to U.S. Sen. Carl Levin in 2014.)

In a unique Michigan quirk, the state’s campaign finance law predates the term limit law, and therefore “does not clearly allow for fundraising by lawmakers who can’t be re-elected,” according to Egan. A 1978 ruling by the Secretary of State sets precedent for a “fundraising event” to exclude anything that does not raise proceeds to influence elections, but there remains no explicit fundraising prohibition. In addition to the hazy legal ground, checks on state politicians are inadequate because the Bureau of Elections is understaffed and unable to scrutinize the thousands of campaign finance reports that it receives, Robinson said (and the director of the state’s Bureau of Elections didn’t dispute). Given this, the spotlight from the Detroit Free Press shines all the brighter.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.