Recently, Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the New York Times that she was having a hard time finding an apartment in Washington DC, in part because she will not be receiving any salary until she is sworn in as a member of Congress in January. Beyond the issue of Washington rent being, frankly, out of control, this brings up the real issue of how most Americans are priced out of running for public office.
Campaigning in general is expensive. This year, the most competitive House races raised over $400 million combined. And while candidates for President or Congress can pay themselves a salary from their campaigns, it stands to reason that most candidates, especially underdogs like Ocasio-Cortez, cannot become rich from their campaign donations if they also expect to run an effective and winning campaign. In addition, as Ocasio-Cortez illustrates, winning the election means still having to go months between the election and that first congressional paycheck without an income.
I can speak from experience and say that being wealthy is a lot better than the alternative, but it is not right that one of the benefits of being wealthy is greater access to political power, either as a candidate or by having the ear of a candidate. Unfortunately, that is exactly how our political system works. Running for office takes the greater part of a year of full-time work. Very few, if any, middle and working class Americans can go without an income for six months. Even fewer can do so for a year, especially with the real possibility that they lose the election and have to return to the workforce having been unemployed for 12 months.
That means that only those who can afford it are able to run for office, favoring the privileged over the middle class. In a real democracy, affordability should not be a disqualifier for who can run for office. Now, perhaps more than ever, Americans want a representative body that looks like them and can relate to their struggles. This isn’t possible without real campaign finance reform that makes it so choosing to run for office isn’t an economic risk for the candidate, nor a substantial financial gain.
Rightly so, there are concerns that candidates will enrich themselves (or appear to enrich themselves) from campaign contributions. One solution, which the FEC has already mandated for Presidential and Congressional candidates, is that “salary must not exceed the lesser of the minimum annual salary for the federal office sought or what the candidate received as earned income in the previous year.”
Thus far, public financing of elections hasn’t really addressed what a candidate will live on while running for office. Some candidates are allowed to make themselves paid staffers of their own campaign. In many places that is not allowed, and where it is allowed it is almost never done because candidates fear it would look bad to use campaign donations for their own pay. Some people try to run campaigns part time while working, but the vast majority of successful candidates are people with the financial resources to campaign full time without pay for almost a year.
Let’s all learn from Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and figure out how to change this.