Florida Democratic Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost and a slate of former congressional candidates urged the Federal Election Commission on Wednesday to loosen restrictions on using campaign funds for salaries and benefits for those seeking federal office.
Making it easier for candidates to draw a regular salary, plus health care and other benefits, would help encourage more diversity among House, Senate and presidential hopefuls, they argued.
Frost said that during the 18 months he was running for the House seat he won in November, he ran up debt that resulted in “a very damaged credit score that I still have and that I’m still working on.”
Democrats on the six-member commission, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, appeared most willing to make the change.
“It enables our democracy to become more perfect by creating opportunities for our federal elected bodies to reflect the current demographics of our nation,” said Democratic commissioner Shana M. Broussard.
But the commission also heard opposition to the idea from Bradley Smith, a former Republican chairman of the FEC and a founder of the Institute for Free Speech. He said current campaign finance laws do not give the FEC the authority to allow candidates to take salaries because of restrictions against personal use of contributor money and that Congress should take up the issue.
Candidates currently may give themselves a salary from campaign funds, but they face restrictions on when they can start to take a salary and how much they can take.
The FEC published proposed changes in the Federal Register late last year. The agency is wrestling with how much the cap should be and when payments could begin — such as when someone files to run — and end.
Smith said there’s a potential for corruption, but witnesses arguing for the changes said that the public disclosure of those expenditures would likely guard against potential grifters.
Georgia state Sen. Nabilah Islam, who lost a 2020 Democratic primary to now-ex-Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, petitioned the FEC for the rule change. She argued that current rules favor wealthy candidates who can forgo their regular salaries while making it harder for working-class candidates and people of color to run for federal office.
“The result is that working people are underrepresented in Congress because they simply cannot afford to run for office,” she told the commission Wednesday.
Islam noted that she announced her candidacy in February 2019 but was prohibited from drawing a salary until much closer to the 2020 primary date and said she “was thrust into a state of financial uncertainty,” unable to afford health insurance.
The commission also heard from former Democratic House candidates Odessa Kelly, who lost her 2022 race in Tennessee; Shrina Kurani, who lost a primary in California last year; and New Yorker Liuba Grechen Shirley, who ran unsuccessfully in 2018 but was successful in getting the FEC to allow her to use campaign funds for child care costs, a major shift.
Some of the former congressional candidates said they had misgivings about drawing salaries, even when they legally could, because they feared it would hurt them politically. Kurani said she was not aware that taking a salary was even an option. “The time commitment of campaigning for federal office does not allow candidates to work a full-time job, and the potential financial impact makes it impossible for many people to even run,” Kurani said.
“To be frank, I originally felt shame, embarrassed,” said Islam about the idea of using campaign funds to pay her a salary. “As I ran for office, I quickly realized that I wasn’t the only person going through this. … It should be normalized that candidates should be able to not have to go broke when they run for office.”