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FEC Childcare Ruling Could Lower Institutional Barriers to Office

The Federal Election Commission ruled last month that candidates for federal office can spend campaign funds on childcare. In a male-dominated, aging Congress, the ruling could carve out some space for more representative newcomers.

  • Kristen Coopie Allen
June 21, 2018

Last month, the Federal Election Commission handed down an advisory opinion that may only bolster the record-breaking and steadily increasing number of women running for federal office. Liuba Grechen Shirley, a Democratic candidate for New York’s 2nd District, asked the FEC to rule on the use of campaign funds for childcare. Her transition to congressional candidate from a work-from-home mother of two  left Grechen Shirley in a situation that most parents can relate to: wondering who will help to care for her children while she meets the demands of an increasingly hectic professional schedule. Since the need for care was a direct consequence of her political campaign, Grechen Shirley petitioned the FEC to issue a ruling on whether campaign funds can be used to cover childcare costs.

Senator Tammy Duckworth’s April 9th delivery of her daughter made her the first sitting Senator to deliver a child while in office. It has also brought the idea of the Congressional baby boom back into the spotlight, something that female members have been fighting to do for years. Being a parent and a member of Congress doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but it also isn’t easy, according to many. Congressional membership is, for the most part, dominated by college-educated professionals well-entrenched in their seats, but the 115th Congress features a record number of female and Hispanic and Latinx members. (On the other hand, it’s also one of the oldest Congresses in history, with an average age of 57.8 in the House and 61.8 in the Senate. For new House members, the average age is 50).

The Commission relies on something known as the “irrespective test” to determine whether expenses are legitimate, campaign-related outlays, or if they are expenses that fall outside of campaign or officeholder activity. The former expenses are acceptable; the latter are considered to be for personal use, and spending campaign funds no such activities is prohibited.   So, for example, a candidate or campaign may purchase food for a meeting or event related to the campaign; but for that weekly grocery trip to stock the fridge at home? That’s not an acceptable use of funds. Campaign funds must be spent on activities related to the act of running for or holding office.

Requests such as the one made by Grechen Shirley are considered by the FEC on a case-by-case basis, allowing the Commissioners to determine how the specifics of a situation fit into the nuances of current statutes, opinions, and case law.  The opinion, certified by a 4–0 vote of the Commission, recognizes that childcare expenses incurred during campaigns for federal office “would not exist irrespective of… candidacy.” In other words, if Grechen Shirley was not running for office, she would not incur the additional expenses of full-time child care required to allow her to maintain a competitive primary campaign.  

In an op-ed Grechen Shirley published on the Washington Post, she cites the need for the removal of “the institutional barriers blocking mothers from running for office.” During the Commission’s  May 10th meeting, Commissioner Ellen Weintraub agreed with this sentiment, further expanding on the implications this ruling may provide:

“I think at a time when a lot of people are concerned about political power concentrated in the hands of a smaller and smaller segment of society a request like this may help to open the door to political activity by younger candidates, female candidates, people of color, working class people and generally may help to advance a more diverse group of representatives who are perhaps more representative of the country at large… so I thank you again for raising this important question.”

Leveling the playing field for typically underrepresented candidates may not guarantee that Congress becomes more representative, but this chance at access can only help to improve the chance at making it happen.

Kristen Coopie Allen is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duquesne University and an adjunct instructor in the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon 


Purchasing Power: The Conversation

This post is part of the special series designed to provide well-informed commentary, fresh questions, and new answers about the facts of money in politics. Dive in to 'Purchasing Power: The Conversation’ here. 

The views expressed by blog contributors are the authors’ own and not necessarily the views of the Brennan Center.