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New FEC regulations on candidate salaries will transform our political landscape

America needs more regular folks running for public office

Shana Broussard, a member of the Federal Election Commission, prepares to testify before the House Administration Committee on Sept. 20.
Shana Broussard, a member of the Federal Election Commission, prepares to testify before the House Administration Committee on Sept. 20. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In presidential election years, media coverage inevitably focuses on the presidential race. But in cities and towns across the country, Americans are campaigning for seats in Congress — races that will have an equally profound impact on public policy. These races should be an opportunity for voters to hear from candidates who can identify with the priorities of everyday Americans.

In reality, a majority of our representatives in Congress are millionaires and 94 percent of incumbents win reelection. That’s because running for Congress requires a commitment of time and resources beyond the reach of most Americans. Many candidates are in the race for a year before they even make the ballot, are pulling 18-hour days on the campaign trail, and have to quit their jobs to campaign full-time. People who run for Congress are often expected to be present caregivers, polished public speakers, competitive candidates, and fundraising machines all at the same time. It’s not sustainable, and it makes it incredibly difficult for people who are not independently wealthy to run.

A group of former congressional candidates were asked about their political future. Just one shared that they planned to run again — the rest could not afford to. Some had taken out second mortgages, others maxed out credit cards and pulled money from retirement accounts, and none could withstand the financial challenge of another campaign.

The result is a government that is not fully representative of the American people. The Federal Election Commission, however, can play a pivotal role in ensuring access to our political system is not reserved for those with deep pockets.

In 2018, the FEC approved the use of campaign funds for childcare and changed the way parents, especially moms, run for federal office. By the time American women are 45 years old, 85 percent are moms, however only 6.8 percent of our Congress members are moms of minor children. The astronomical cost of childcare is a major barrier for parents considering a run for federal office, but using campaign funds for childcare has allowed more parents and caregivers to step up and run. Now, Vote Mama Foundation is working state by state to expand and track the use of campaign funds for childcare for all state and local candidates. Vote Mama Foundation has helped 31 states approve the use of campaign funds for childcare and continues to push for changes to make it easier for caregivers to run for and to serve in office. Since 2018, campaign funds for childcare usage has increased by 2,156 percent for state and local candidates and 662 percent for federal candidates.

Recently, the FEC approved final rules to make it easier for federal candidates to draw salaries from their privately raised campaign funds and pay themselves a livable wage. This will change the political landscape.

Candidates can now pay themselves a salary throughout the entirety of their campaign. That means instead of barely scraping by until they make the ballot, candidates can start paying themselves a salary as soon as they declare their candidacy. Previous regulations only considered the candidate’s earned income in the calendar year preceding their candidacy, a rule that disadvantaged stay-at-home caregivers, full-time students, and people who were unemployed. New regulations consider a candidate’s average earned income over the most recent five years, creating a more equitable system that does not exclude candidates who were out of the workforce right before running for office. The new regulation also expands the eligibility period and allows candidates to continue drawing compensation for 20 days after their campaign ends. During the interval between the general election and being officially sworn into Congress and receiving their first paycheck, candidates can use their campaign funds to stay financially afloat.

The FEC is making it easier for everyday people to run for office and have a fighting chance to represent their communities in Congress, but a problem still persists. Many candidates still express feeling shame when faced with the financial realities of campaigning, and many are also hesitant to use these financial resources for fear of being politically attacked. While all campaign expenditures can and should be evaluated by voters, we hope that voters see that significant work goes into campaigning and that all too often, running for federal office is reserved only for wealthy Americans.

The strength of our democracy depends on Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds being able to run for office. The more candidates tell their stories and speak about the barriers that hold them back, the more we are able to create and normalize opportunities for people who are not independently wealthy to enter politics.

We need more everyday people to run for office. We hope that future candidates make the decision to draw compensation for the real work they do to advance their campaigns, and they will do so without shame.

Liuba Grechen Shirley is a former Congressional candidate and the founder and CEO of Vote Mama.

Shana M. Broussard is an attorney, an active member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, incorporated, and a member of the Federal Election Commission. The views expressed are her own as a private citizen and do not represent a Government endorsement of any private entities discussed herein.

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