Helping Moms and Dads Become Candidates

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.