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Helping Moms and Dads Become Candidates

A campaign spending rule change makes it easier for parents to run for office.

February 18, 2020
kids in daycare

The Consti­tu­tion allows members of the House to be as young as 25 and senat­ors as young as 30 — prime child­bear­ing ages. But parents who want to run for federal office often need to pay for costly child­care if they want to be success­ful candid­ates. This cost can be a barrier to parents enter­ing polit­ics, which often requires new candid­ates to work long hours outside of the home, includ­ing at night­time fundraisers and rallies.

But a small change at the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion could have an import­ant impact on who runs for office in the future, because campaign funds can now be used to pay for child­care.

Child­care costs can be exor­bit­ant — in 28 states it can be as expens­ive as college and it’s espe­cially daunt­ing for single parents. Until 2018, candid­ates for federal office could not use campaign funds to pay for child­care, and they instead had to pay out of pocket. This prohib­i­tion was part of the FEC’s personal-use rule, which seeks to ensure that candid­ates use campaign funds for valid purposes — like making campaign signs or running TV ads — and not to enrich them­selves.

Demo­crats and Repub­lic­ans alike have been charged with viol­a­tions of the personal-use rule and sent to prison for it. Former Rep. Jesse Jack­son Jr. (D-IL) and his wife went to prison in 2013 for using campaign funds to buy Michael Jack­son memor­ab­ilia. More recently, former Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) was indicted for using campaign funds to pay for fancy family vaca­tions, a bach­elor party, and to conduct affairs with five women. Hunter pleaded guilty to using over $150,000 in campaign funds inap­pro­pri­ately. In Janu­ary 2020 he resigned from Congress, and in March he will be sentenced. He faces up to five years in prison.

Given the seri­ous­ness of the personal-use rule, the 2018 request by candid­ate Liuba Grechen Shir­ley, a mother running for Congress against Rep. Peter King (R-NY), for permis­sion to use campaign funds for child­care costs for her 1– and 3-year-old was high stakes. But as it turned out, she wasn’t alone in want­ing this reform. Hillary Clin­ton and 24 members of Congress (men and women) wrote to the FEC on Shir­ley’s behalf.

The FEC, is known for dead­lock­ing on matters large and small. But fortu­nately, it approved the change in policy, allow­ing candid­ates to use campaign funds for child­care costs. The commis­sion wrote, “Child­care expenses that are a direct result of Ms. Shir­ley’s campaign activ­ity would not exist irre­spect­ive of her campaign. There­fore, the Commis­sion concluded that Liuba for Congress may use its campaign funds to pay for Ms. Shir­ley’s campaign-related child­care expenses, to the extent such expenses are incurred as a direct result of campaign activ­ity.”

As a result, since May 2018 federal candid­ates who are parents can use campaign funds to pay for child­care so that they can run for elec­tion. This means that 2020 is the first campaign cycle in which pres­id­en­tial candid­ates can use this bene­fit.

Several candid­ates who ran for the Demo­cratic pres­id­en­tial nomin­a­tion were eligible parents. Andrew Yang, Rep. Eric Swal­well (D-CA), Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) all have chil­dren under 9 years old, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has an 11-year-old.

This FEC rule change could make a big differ­ence for parents running for Congress. Moth­ers of young chil­dren in partic­u­lar will bene­fit, since they often face the expect­a­tion that they will be the primary care provider and the perfect mom.

This year happens to be the 100th anniversary of the adop­tion of the 19th Amend­ment, which gran­ted Amer­ican women the right to vote. Yet women are still under­rep­res­en­ted in Congress and the federal judi­ciary, not to mention the White House. This new FEC rule means more women will be able to juggle parent­hood with polit­ics in this pivotal elec­tion.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center.