Testimonies & comments

Issue One urges FEC to adjust rules to help candidates of modest means run for office

In a new letter to Federal Election Commission Chair Shana Broussard, Issue One expressed support for amending agency regulations to help candidates of modest means run for federal office. 

Issue One specifically endorsed allowing candidates that had little or no income in the previous year to become eligible to collect a “reasonable salary” out of their campaign accounts. Issue One also endorsed standardizing the date that candidates in different states can begin collecting salaries and treating health insurance costs for candidates as a permissible campaign expense. 

“Through this rulemaking, the Commission can help make it easier for working Americans to run for federal office, and the agency should take this opportunity to do so,” wrote Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee in the new letter, which was submitted to the FEC today.

She continued: “These small changes can make a difference toward creating a more representative legislative body, though by no means will they fully solve the larger issues caused by the vast sums of money that flow through campaigns in the United States, including the fact that candidates with more money tend to win elections.” 

Issue One believes that the ability for all Americans to run for office is vital for a healthy democracy, but today, the odds are frequently stacked against candidates of modest means who attempt to run for federal office.

Currently, while incumbents are prohibited from paying themselves salaries with campaign cash, non-incumbent candidates are allowed to use campaign funds to pay themselves a salary so long as it does not exceed the lesser of 

  1. the minimum annual salary for the federal office they are seeking or 
  2. what the candidate received as earned income in the previous year. 

Yet under current rules, for candidates with a gap in employment, or for those who have been out of the workforce to take care of children or other family members, the lesser of these two amounts may be zero dollars.

Additionally, there is a troubling lack of uniformity in when congressional candidates become eligible to collect salaries under the present regulations, which creates disparities and inequities for candidates running for office in different parts of the country.

For instance, U.S. House candidates in Missouri become eligible to collect salaries 133 days prior to their primary elections, while U.S. House candidates in Pennsylvania cannot collect a salary until 56 days before their primaries — less than half the time as candidates in Missouri.

In recent years, candidates from working-class backgrounds — some of whom collected salaries using campaign funds — have earned headlines. But candidates with the means to quit their jobs and campaign full-time have a distinct advantage over those that cannot afford to do so, and most members of Congress are overwhelmingly wealthy. 

In fact, more than half of the members of the previous Congress were millionaires, according to OpenSecrets.org. And research by Issue One found that more than 20% of candidates who ran in competitive open seat U.S. House races from 2012 through 2020 personally bankrolled at least 10% of their campaign costs — with many of them investing $500,000 or more into their races.

The FEC is considering this rulemaking in the wake of a petition from Democrat Nabilah Islam, the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants who forewent health insurance during her unsuccessful 2020 congressional race in Georgia to save money. 

During that election, Islam sought legal advice from the FEC about whether she could use campaign funds to cover a health insurance premium, but because the FEC lacked the quorum necessary to conduct official business for most of the 2020 election cycle, it was unable to provide her with guidance.

Read Issue One’s full letter to the FEC in support of this rulemaking here.