Insider

Want to run for Congress but can’t afford to pay your own rent or bills? This former House Democratic candidate has a solution.

Summary List PlacementYou have a family. You work two jobs to pay bills. You're firmly part of the 75% percent — most definitely not the 1%. And although you're a well-connected political animal who has long engaged in local party politics, the notion of seeking elected office strikes you as...

nabilah.islam

Summary List Placement

You have a family. You work two jobs to pay bills. You’re firmly part of the 75% percent — most definitely not the 1%.

And although you’re a well-connected political animal who has long engaged in local party politics, the notion of seeking elected office strikes you as silly. Where would you find time to run, short of quitting work? And if you did, how could you personally afford it?

A former Democratic congressional candidate filed a formal petition on Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission aimed at addressing this conundrum and helping “lower the barriers for working Americans to run for federal office.”

The petition, floated by 2020 congressional candidate Nabilah Islam, specifically asks the FEC to amend its regulations to:

  • Allow congressional and presidential candidates to draw a salary from their campaign accounts for up to one year before a primary vote. Currently, candidates may only take a campaign-funded salary between a state’s candidate filing deadline and date of a primary vote, which varies from state to state and may only amount to a few weeks.
  • Create a “salary floor” for candidates who pay themselves from their campaign account. Islam proposes setting that floor at “no less than the annualized salary of $15 per hour.”
  • Grant campaign committees the right to pay their candidate’s health care insurance premiums and “permit a candidate to join any health benefit plan already provided to other campaign employees.”

Islam’s proposal in part springs from her own experience as a candidate running in a Democratic congressional primary for a Georgia district representing suburban Atlanta. 

The daughter of working-class immigrants from Bangladesh, she finished third in a field of six after months of campaigning, having earned endorsements from several progressive luminaries, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Along the way, Islam said she struggled to pay her rent, depleted her personal savings, went without health insurance, and put her student loans into forbearance.   

“Every American should have a living wage and health insurance when they run for office,” Islam told Insider. “The current system makes it prohibitive for working Americans to run for office, and it’s not reflective of our economic diversity or our diversity, in general.”

Islam, who founded the Turnout Democrats super PAC following her congressional run, is being represented by prominent Democrat lawyer Neil Reiff of the Sandler, Reiff, Lamb, Rosenstein and Birkenstock P.C. law firm.

Representatives for three leading campaign finance reform organizations — Common Cause, Campaign Legal Center, and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School — also told Insider that they support Islam’s effort.

“Running for office is too hard for Americans who aren’t wealthy or don’t have access to wealthy donors,” said Daniel Weiner, deputy director for the Brennan Center’s election reform program.

“This would help level the playing field,” added Erin Chlopak, the Campaign Legal Center’s director of campaign finance strategy.

federal election commission chamber

‘Political stigma’ and PR consequences? 

In general, federal law prohibits federal candidates from using campaign cash on personal expenditures — so forget that donor-funded Rolex or dream trip to Maui. 

But the six-member, bipartisan FEC, which often deadlocks along ideological lines on high-profile matters, has made exceptions to this standard.

For example, it ruled in 2018 that federal candidates may use campaign funds to pay for certain child care expenses. In 2017, it expanded the kinds of home security lawmakers could purchase and fund through campaign money.

“There’s an excellent chance of success here for bipartisan agreement and compromise,” said Beth Rotman, national director of money in politics and ethics at Common Cause.

Eric Wang, an attorney at Wiley Rein LLP who works with many conservative clients, said Islam’s petition presents “reasonable legal arguments for the proposed rule changes.”

But Wang warned that even if the FEC does amend its rules, “there could still be a political stigma to candidates using campaign donor funds to pay themselves. Candidates should carefully consider the PR consequences before making such payments.”

The FEC will likely need to consider thorny issues associated with Islam’s proposed rule. For one: What happens if a federal candidate raises money, takes a salary, but does little — if anything — in the way of campaigning for office?

Expect the FEC’s rulemaking process to take months. There are several bureaucratic hurdles to clear. The first is inviting the public to comment on Islam’s proposed changes. Commissioners may then vote to open a formal rulemaking process — or not.

Since 2010, the FEC has completed 23 rulemakings, although some were noncontroversial matters.

While running for Congress in 2020, Islam asked the FEC to weigh in on the healthcare portion of her new rulemaking petition. 

The FEC, however, never did, as it lacked enough commissioners most of last year to make high-level decisions. 

Since December, the agency has enjoyed a full slate of six commissioners for the first time since 2017 and is led by Chairperson Shana Broussard, the first Black commissioner in the agency’s 46-year history. 

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