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The FEC Can Make It Easier for Non-Rich People to Run for Congress

Running for Congress is very expensive. And for those who aren’t wealthy, just the cost of living while campaigning can be a serious barrier to running — and therefore a challenge to achieving a national legislature that truly represents America’s diversity. The Federal Election Commission, which enforces federal campaign finance laws, is weighing a move to update its rules for how and when candidates can use campaign funds to support themselves. The proposed changes could make the rules significantly more equitable and give candidates from all backgrounds a fair chance for a successful run. The updates will be the subject of a public hearing on March 22.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) made headlines when she became the youngest woman to ever serve in Congress at age 29. As a former bartender, she has been outspoken about the hurdles facing candidates for office who are young, working class, and people of color. After dipping into her savings to fund her House race, Ocasio-Cortez was left with less than $7,000 in her bank account. Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-FL), the first Generation Z and first Afro-Cuban member of Congress, is in debt after maxing out credit cards during his campaign. After winning his race, he struggled to get an apartment in Washington because of his lack of savings and low credit score.

Ocasio-Cortez and Frost won their races, but the nature of running for high office is that most candidates do not win, even very talented ones. The financial strain of a campaign coupled with the long odds can make running unimaginable for all but the most determined contenders. And as the campaign manager for one Pennsylvania congressional candidate noted, it leads “the political establishment in both parties [to] recruit[] the already wealthy and well-connected to run instead.”

The burden of running often falls especially hard on candidates who are also primary caregivers — still disproportionately women. One 2018 congressional candidate, Liuba Grechen Shirley, spoke out about the difficulties of trying to care for her baby and toddler while also hitting the campaign trail. She emphasized that the cost of childcare is “one of the first barriers to getting a diverse pipeline of working moms running for office.” Eventually, Grechen Shirley requested and received approval from the FEC to use campaign funds to pay for childcare — but that decision only applies to her.  

The FEC’s rules contribute significantly to these inequities, as the Brennan Center explained in comments filed with the commission last month. While the rules allow campaign funds to be used for a candidate’s salary, that amount is capped at whatever the candidate earned in the previous year, up to the salary for the office the candidate is seeking. So a bartender who made $20,000 in the prior year can only pay herself that much while on the campaign trail, whereas a stockbroker who made $140,000 can pay herself seven times more.

Worse, a full-time caregiver who didn’t receive any income is simply out of luck — she can’t pay herself anything, and like Grechen Shirley would likely have to get special permission even to use campaign funds to care for children or other dependents while she is out campaigning. The rules disproportionately burden candidates who are women, LGBTQ+, working class, or people of color — individuals who are already less likely to have accumulated wealth that they can fall back on while running a campaign.

Several of the proposals before the FEC would eliminate or at least reduce the unfairness of the commission’s salary rules. The rulemaking also gives the commission an opportunity to make clear that any candidate who need to use campaign funds for essential expenses like childcare is free to do so.

The 118th Congress is the most diverse in history in terms of the number of racial and ethnic minorities, the number of women, and the number of LGBTQ+ people serving. Even so, racial and ethnic minorities are still significantly underrepresented as compared to the American public. Women make up just a little more than a quarter of all members. And only 13 members of Congress identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Updated rules are sorely needed to reduce barriers to running for office for people from a range of backgrounds.

The FEC has often failed to meet contemporary challenges for our campaign finance system. This rulemaking represents a welcome departure from that trend if it leads to concrete action in the form of more equitable rules. Ultimately, if we are to have elected officials that fully reflect America’s diversity, we need rules that help candidates of all backgrounds to run for and win office.

Brennan Center for Justice

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