When Democrat Nabilah Islam ran for Congress in 2020, she gave up a salary and health insurance to campaign full time. She didn’t win, but she’s trying to change the system anyway.
Islam, who lost in the Democratic primary in Georgia’s 7th District to now-Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, is calling on the Federal Election Commission to allow candidates to secure a minimum salary and health benefits through their campaigns. She also wants the FEC to set a uniform time frame for when candidates may begin drawing compensation.
Campaign finance overhaul groups such as Issue One and Common Cause support the effort, saying it would make it easier for a more diverse collection of people to seek public office.
“This really opens the doorway for more people to even consider running for Congress,” said Danielle Caputo, legislative affairs and programs counsel for Issue One, which filed a comment letter with the FEC on Tuesday in support of the change.
The letter noted that “those with enough means to quit their jobs and campaign full-time have a distinct advantage over those that cannot afford to do so.”
Under current rules, candidates may not pay for their own health insurance with campaign funds, although campaigns may insure staffers. Candidates for House or Senate are entitled to pay themselves a salary of up to $174,000 annually, the rate of pay for the office they’re seeking. They can’t draw more than they were making in the year prior to their run for office, however, which means unemployed people or stay-at-home caregivers are not entitled to a salary.
“The rules really have been stacked against working people running for office or people who might have been caregivers or those in between employment,” said Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at Common Cause. “If you were unemployed, a caretaker, and your income was zero, you’re not entitled to a salary.”
Islam’s petition asks the FEC to set a minimum salary of $15 an hour, even for people who did not previously have an income. It also asks the agency to set a salary period before a primary so that it’s uniform across states. Islam said it should be a year before the primary; the Issue One letter states that it should be at least 180 days.
The FEC is accepting comments on the rules through Friday.
“What these kinds of proposals offer is the opportunity for more women, low-income people, people of color and people of different socioeconomic backgrounds to be represented in Congress, and that would be a good thing,” said Ellen Weintraub, an FEC commissioner. “I’m not saying I’m in favor of any particular proposal, but I am in favor of making sure our regulations aren’t discouraging people of all income brackets from running for office.”
Islam, a political consultant who had worked on state, local and federal campaigns before her run for office, said being a candidate was eye-opening.
“You need to do it full time to give your district the attention it deserves,” she said. “I saw so many others like myself struggle, running for office without health care during a pandemic.”
As for the salaries, current rules are tied to the date candidates file to get on the ballot, which varies by state. For Islam, the date was in March 2020 with her primary originally set for May, though it was delayed because of the pandemic. She started campaigning in February 2019, she said, about a year before she’d qualify for a salary.
If the FEC changes the rules, it would be the latest in a string of shifts from the agency making it easier for candidates to tap campaign funds for what, in the past, would have been deemed personal expenses. The FEC has given the green light to candidates’ use of political money for child care expenses related to campaigning.
The agency also recently said it was OK for lawmakers to use campaign funds to pay for security for themselves and immediate family members. It had previously said campaigns could fund lawmakers’ home security measures.
Wealthy individuals, meanwhile, enjoy all sorts of advantages when running for office, including funding their own campaigns.
A recent federal court decision made it even easier for candidates to pay themselves back. Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz won a challenge to a provision in a 2002 campaign finance law that had prohibited federal candidates who made personal campaign loans before the election from using more than $250,000 in post-election contributions to repay them.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia found that the provision infringed on candidates’ free speech, although that decision is being appealed.
David Keating, president of the Institute for Free Speech, which advocates fewer campaign finance regulations, said it makes sense to him to set a uniform time frame for when candidates could begin taking a salary, rather than using a state-by-state patchwork. He’s less convinced that the FEC should determine a minimum salary threshold for federal candidates who wish to pay themselves but who did not have income.
“I’m sympathetic to the idea of some minimum amount, but I don’t think the FEC should be defining what a living wage is,” he said, noting that he was speaking for himself and not taking an official position for the Institute for Free Speech. “To me, what makes the most sense is the minimum wage in that district.”
He added that most candidates are still unlikely to pay themselves a salary.
“Very few do it because politically it makes it more difficult,” Keating said. “Voters tend to look with suspicion when politicians are paying themselves to campaign.”
Campaign expenses are, of course, a matter of public record and can easily become fodder for news stories and campaign attacks.
Democrat Dana Balter, for example, faced criticism for taking salary payments before the primary filing deadline when running in New York. She called it an “honest mistake” and reimbursed her campaign. Texas Republican Beth Van Duyne also attracted headlines when the single mom drew a salary from her ultimately successful campaign for House.
In its letter to the FEC, Issue One said its research showed that 20 percent of candidates who ran in competitive open-seat House races from 2012 through 2020 personally bankrolled at least 10 percent of their campaign costs, with many of them investing $500,000 or more into their races.
Still, Issue One said the FEC “should have a keen awareness that there is a risk of corruption when campaign funds are used for personal use” and ought to limit salaries so they don’t constitute a substantial portion of a campaign’s total spending.
Islam said that as more candidates take salaries, it would become less politically risky.
“We have to normalize this or Congress will continue to be a body of a bunch of millionaires,” she said. “We’re missing out on some great people that could be representing us, and I want to help fix that.”