"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

What they want it for

idaho RANDY
The Idaho

The norm in campaign finance, traditionally at least, goes like this: The candidate files and sets up an account for campaign spending, receives funds for campaign purposes, then spends it, presumably to around zero by election day, on such as ads, printing and mailing, salaries, office space, polling, depending on the size of the campaign. Traditionally, campaigns are like the Snake River at Milner Dam, which is dewatered at the end of one stretch, then refills in the next one.

That still often happens when candidates are in competitive races, when they collect whatever they can and spend it down, because they can’t politically afford to leave resources on the table.

Nowadays, however, fewer congressional races are really competitive. If you’re one of those nearly impregnable incumbents – say, a Republican in Idaho (or, a Democrat in some other states) – you really don’t need but a fraction of the funds you take in. Most of your contributors aren’t donating because they think you need it to win; they have other agendas in mind. You wind up with excess cash.

The handling of that excess money has come up in the case of Senator Mike Crapo’s campaign treasury. Here’s some background.

In the cycle leading up to his last election in 2010, Crapo raised $5.1 million, which was added on to some cash he already had on hand. In the campaign he spent about $3.4 million, only a portion of what he had available but still far more than he needed, since that was about 34 times as much as his Democratic opponent, Tom Sullivan, spent. Crapo ended the 2010 cycle with about $3 million cash on hand, and has continued to raise money since, though he’s not up for re-election until 2016. As of the end of March, he had $3.4 million on hand. This is not an unusual situation; quite a few successful congressional candidates of both parties also are well padded.

What to do with the money just sitting there? Candidates aren’t supposed to use it for personal purposes, though some occasionally dip in for semi-official uses. Sometimes flush candidates donate heavily to other candidates from their party (this happens on the legislative level too), generating political chits to be cashed later. Or the money can sit in a bank, drawing interest. But rules governing its use are not notably tight.

Bringing us to last week’s headline about $250,000 in Crapo campaign money, an expenditure that required Crapo to amend his campaign filings reports. Former campaign manager Jake Ball says that he got from Crapo permission to increase the financial returns on the money (exactly what Crapo knew or didn’t, remains unclear), and that in September 2008 he handed a quarter million of donor money to a friend, Gavin McCaleb, who (operating as Blueberry guru LLC) in turn poured it into Pyramid Global Resources of Las Vegas, which was expected to return a tidy profit in a couple of months. Instead, the quarter million disappeared, and Pyramid no longer has even a Nevada business filing. Poof!

Which has led to some comment about the financial management for which Crapo – an attorney and a member of the Senate banking committee – is directly responsible.

But there’s a broader question, and part of it goes to anyone who contributes to a congressional campaign. The next time you get a campaign donation request, you might want to ask in reply just how much they’ve already got, how much they really need – and what exactly they need your money for.

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