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New Rule Allows You to Give Up Your Day Job to Run for Congress

November 26, 2002|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Here's a new reason to run for Congress: You can get paid, even if you lose.

Under a Federal Election Commission rule issued Monday, non-incumbent candidates for federal office will be allowed to pay themselves a salary out of campaign funds. The decision is designed to spur more people of modest means to enter the political fray.

But lest anybody think about getting rich off political campaigns, the rule limits candidates' salaries to the amount they received in their old job or the pay for the office they are seeking -- whichever is lower.

House and Senate members make $150,000 a year. The president earns $400,000.

The new policy was issued as the commission fleshed out the details of the landmark campaign finance reform law passed by Congress and signed by President Bush this year.

"People shouldn't have to mortgage their homes to run for office," said John Pomeranz, nonprofit advocacy director for the Alliance for Justice, a coalition of civil rights groups that supported the salary rule.

In past years, officials deadlocked on whether to permit candidates to draw a salary from campaign funds, given a federal ban on personal use of political contributions. But Monday's commission vote allowing compensation was 5 to 1.

Supporters of the rule said it would help level the playing field between challengers and incumbents.

"The argument has been that members of Congress get paid by the taxpayers their normal salary while they're running for office," said Larry Noble, who now heads the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign financing. "But a challenger usually has to quit work if they're going to run for office full time."

The rule was pushed by Republican Michael E. Toner, a Bush appointee to the FEC.

"Why shouldn't people of modest means be able to run for office, people like schoolteachers, blue-collar workers, other people who don't have the ability to save hundreds of thousands of dollars and forgo their salaries and jobs while they run for office?" Toner said in an interview.

A proliferation of wealthy congressional candidates have gained attention in recent years for running largely self-financed campaigns. The new salary rule includes safeguards to prevent abuses, according to FEC officials. Presidential candidates who accept partial taxpayer financing of their campaigns are forbidden from paying themselves salaries. Members of Congress cannot collect salaries from their campaigns in addition to their pay.

Among experts, reaction to the rule was mixed.

"The ruling may give a few more Americans an opportunity to run for office, which is good," said Spencer Overton, an associate professor of law at George Washington University Law School.

"The problem remains, however, that most Americans don't have access to hundreds of wealthy individuals willing to give $2,000 each to pay for television commercials, consultants and other existing expenses of a competitive federal campaign."

Noble said, "A good effect will be if people run for office who could not run before, and we see a broader cross section of candidates. It will be bad if people start running for office just for the sake of getting this money.

"I think we need to keep an eye on how it works," he added. As an example, he questioned whether the FEC will monitor whether a candidate who claims to have earned $125,000 a year before seeking office really had done so.

Karl J. Sandstrom, the commissioner who opposed the rule, said he was concerned it would allow some candidates to earn more than others.

A candidate who has been a parent staying home to take care of a children, for example, might not be entitled to any salary.

"If you didn't make any money the previous year, you're entitled to nothing," he said.

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