Outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid is seeking to use $600,000 in campaign and political action committee funds to cover his expenses after leaving office, a request that has the Federal Election Commission concerned about the precedent it would set for using money raised while in office.
Dubbed an "administrative slush fund" by FEC Commissioner Lee E. Goodman, concerns were raised at a meeting in late December that it would let Reid run around the country promoting his agenda with funds given to help his reelection campaigns and as a senator.
"This issue of personal use vexes us," said Goodman, who prefers more restrictions on the money in Reid's campaign coffers and Searchlight Leadership Fund than his Democratic colleagues on the commission.
The longtime Nevada senator is seeking use of the money to close out his offices and aid his shift to becoming a former public official still intent on influencing the nation's agenda. Unlike for former House speakers and presidents, Senate leaders do not get a taxpayer-funded allowance after leaving office.
Using campaign funds for private use has long been an no-no for lawmakers, even in retirement. Reid has over $540,000 in his campaign coffers and another $60,800 in his leadership political action committee, according to the most recent FEC filings.
In the case of Reid, the FEC has deferred action as it grapples with just how far it will let Reid use the money and if it sets a precedent for other lawmakers.
Also at issue is the claim by Reid's team that his status as a longtime leader, and long career in Congress, gives him a special rights to the money.
Democratic Chairwoman Ann Ravel said Reid should get his wish. She called it the "appropriate mechanism for a person who will continue to be doing a public service as a historic figure in our country, to achieve purposes that are important to the American public."
She said that Reid is a special case. "This is applicable to a person who has been the majority leader for many years, who has performed an important function in our government for many years, who probably during that time had so much to do that he was unable to do some of the things that's necessary, not only for the winding down of the office but also to be able to communicate to the American public as an important figure and public official, not necessarily as just a person who's been there a couple of years and is trying to make personal use of their campaign funds," she said.
But Goodman asked who is the FEC to declare one lawmaker more important than another? "I mean, how do we draw that line? We think you were important enough to walk away with an administrative slush fund. We don't think you were important enough," he said.
Goodman, an influential voice of the Republican members on the FEC, noted that some former lawmakers used other funds and support to cover their post-retirement duties beyond closing down their office.
"And the fact that many members of Congress choose to do this and choose to do it at the expense of think tanks, nonprofits shows that there are many other ways to fund this choice after you leave office, but it is not necessitated by your former service or your former candidate status," he said.
Goodman also questioned setting a model that leaves the door open to former lawmakers using old funds to pay for their retirement duties.
"There is no end to it. Every member of Congress will always be a former member of Congress, will always have request to speak, write, publish, fact check, do all of the things that are here, and what it essentially suggests is that campaign funds can go with members of Congress after they leave to, without end, speak, write, discuss their former tenures in office," he said, shrugging off Reid's reasoning.
"That's what I'm struggling with here, is the generic nature of this post-retirement, what would essentially be a post retirement pension, administrative pension fund," he added.
Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.