We should let candidates draw salaries from campaign accounts
A POSITIVE BY-PRODUCT of the Trump presidency is the ever growing number of people interested in running for office at all levels of government. Organizations like EMILY’s List, which helps pro-choice women get elected, report that since Election Day 2016 more than 25,000 women have signed up to run. Having realized that democracy is not a spectator sport, they are ready to toss their proverbial hats into the ring.
We all know, however, that campaigns are expensive. The average successful campaign for the United States House of Representatives costs around $1.3 million, as just one example. The amount of money candidates need in their campaign coffers is just one obstacle. In order to run for many elected positions, especially statewide or federal offices, most people have to leave their full-time jobs, either because of a conflict of interest or because of the reality that running a successful campaign is itself a full-time job.
This leaves many first-time, qualified candidates faced with a difficult question: Can I afford to run? With bills to pay and families to support, many people who want to pursue elected office are unable to because they cannot go without a paycheck, even for a few weeks or months. Who is left? Often candidates from more affluent backgrounds or incumbents who can continue to collect their salaries while seeking re-election or even higher office.
A career in public service understandably involves some financial sacrifice, but the system is stacked against many new candidates who do not have the means or ability to ditch their current jobs to make a run for elected office. This leaves many qualified people on the sidelines.
In 2002 the Federal Election Commission attempted to address this problem by voting to allow candidates for federal office to pay themselves a salary from their campaign accounts. Under this rule, the candidate can pay herself a salary not more than the lesser of the annual salary of the federal office sought or what she received as earned income in the previous year. So, if you want to run for Congress but cannot leave your $50,000 a year job because you have monthly student loans to pay, you can pay yourself that same salary from campaign funds. On the other end of the spectrum, if you are a congressional candidate who left a $250,000 a year job, you can pay yourself the salary of a member of Congress, which is currently $174,000.
To prevent abuse, the first salary payment cannot be made before the filing deadline to get on the primary ballot, so you can’t start paying yourself a salary a year before you can actually make your candidacy official. Also, you can only pay yourself on a pro-rata basis. So if your candidacy does not exactly take off and you drop out after only a week (didn’t consider those skeletons in your closet?), you can only pay yourself for that week not for an entire year of self-reflection on a tropical island. Finally, and significantly, you have to disclose to prospective donors that you are paying yourself a salary, leaving it up to them to decide whether they want to give you money to help pay your mortgage as well as print bumper stickers. This disclosure requirement, of course, means that your opponent(s) and the local media will find out that you’re paying yourself a salary. Candidates who pay themselves from campaign coffers are often criticized, so you will have to have your talking points ready. The explanatory narrative is definitely much easier for the school teacher making $50,000 than the banker making $250,000.
While paying yourself a campaign salary is an option if you are looking to head to Capitol Hill, it is not an option if you have your eyes set on Beacon Hill. In a 2005 advisory opinion, the Commonwealth’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) explained that candidates for state offices are not permitted to pay themselves a salary under the campaign finance law and related regulations because it amounts to a prohibited financial gain for the candidate’s personal use. This should be changed – either by the Legislature or OCPF through its regulatory process. Again, it is not about turning running for office into someone’s permanent and lucrative full-time job. Instead, it is about leveling the playing field and making it possible for new candidates who don’t enjoy the benefits of deep financial resources or an incumbent’s salary to afford to run for office. Limits can and should be set, such as those that exist at the federal level, especially the disclosure requirement.
Some would say that this change is unlikely to occur because it’s hard to envision most incumbent state legislators being interested in making it easier for people to run against them. While this may be true, I am confident that there are some noble exceptions. We should, at the very least, start a conversation about how we can open the door to elected office to leaders in our community who come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.
Jamie Hoag served as deputy chief legal counsel and ethics adviser to former governor Deval Patrick. He is currently an administrator at the College of the Holy Cross and adjunct law professor at Suffolk University Law School.