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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 Univer­ 


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.