Just the Facts

What Happens When Lawmakers Leave Office?

By No Labels
May 4, 2018 | Blog

Almost one in every six House members will not be returning to Congress next year for various reasons. Fully 67 lawmakers have left or will leave the chamber, more than in the last two election cycles combined.

Beyond the implications for November’s election—there will be many seats to fill—what happens when a lawmaker retires? Can they lobby their former colleagues? What about leftover campaign funds? Here are some answers.


Why do lawmakers leave?

A seat in Congress is a good job by most standards. Base pay is more than $170,000 a year, and there’s a generous package of benefits. So why do lawmakers leave? Some simply retire. Others are forced to resign due to scandal. Some run for a different office, such as a governorship. And some pursue private-sector jobs, either in Washington or back home in their state. There are examples of all of these in this year’s crop of departing lawmakers.


What jobs do they take?

A former member of Congress is a prized hire for many organizations. Their knowledge of politics, policy and procedure can be useful to law firms and lobbying shops, trade associations and nonprofits, corporations with regulatory needs and just about any company that requires a federal presence. Many lawmakers—one 2016 study showed almost half—join Washington’s “influence” industry after leaving Congress. The pay often reflects a lawmaker’s expertise and longevity, with committee chairs and members of leadership commanding more money. Salaries in the high six figures—and sometimes seven—are common.


Can former lawmakers lobby?

Yes, but they must wait to do so. Members of Congress cannot lobby their former colleagues in office for a full year. However, there is much that they can do without running afoul of the law. Members of Congress are the ultimate insiders, having spent years meeting in conference, talking with colleagues and receiving a steady stream of inside information from party, leadership and special interests. They are extremely knowledgeable. That means many are in high demand as strategists, who can explain both policy and politics. When their waiting period is over, they can register as lobbyists and contact lawmakers and staff directly.


What perks do they receive?

Former members of Congress enjoy many perks after leaving office. One major benefit is access. Men and women who have served in the House can continue to visit parts of the Capitol that are off limits to lobbyists and other visitors, such as the House Gym. This means they can mix with members of Congress in ways that others cannot. Departing lawmakers get retirement benefits as well. Members of Congress get both a pension and a Thrift Savings Plan similar to a 401(k). The details will vary by individual. But lawmakers 62 or older with 5 years of service are eligible for full pension benefits.


What happens to campaign money?

House members face re-election every two years, which means they are constantly campaigning. While they are running for office, they have control over the campaign money they raise. They can fund travel, polls, advertising and other campaign costs. They cannot use campaign money for personal expenses. Similar rules apply if a lawmaker leaves office and there is money left in their campaign account after all expenses are settled. They can give that money back to donors or contribute it to another candidate, a political party, a political action committee or a charity. They cannot spend it on themselves.

For many lawmakers who leave office and have leftover funds, the money becomes a political asset. They can use it to fund candidates and causes that help them in their new role, whatever that may be. In some cases, this can stretch on for years. As USA Today reported, “Even after members of Congress leave office, their campaign committees often keep churning along.”

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