- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

The Federal Election Commission yesterday voted to allow federal office seekers to pay themselves a salary from political donations.

The 5-1 vote allows House, Senate and presidential candidates to collect a paycheck equal to the job they held before the campaign or the amount they would receive if elected, whichever is less.

Federal lawmakers are paid $150,000 a year and the president receives $400,000.

The ruling was prompted by language in the McCain/Feingold campaign-spending law, said Bob Biersack, Federal Election Commission (FEC) spokesman.

The law, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, does not authorize salaries but addresses the definition of personal use of campaign funds. Commissioners took advantage of the bill as a vehicle to allow payments, Mr. Biersack said.

Running for federal office is a full-time job putting candidates at a financial disadvantage, the commission reasoned.

"This is not going to overcome the disadvantage completely, but it does reduce it some or at least gives people the option," Mr. Biersack said.

"The argument is that there should be as little in the process as possible that prohibits people of modest means from participating and running for office."

The provisions were "carefully designed" to prevent people from getting rich off running for Congress or the presidency. The salary is paid on a prorated basis beginning on the deadline day for filing, through "whatever Election Day decides your fate, primary or general," Mr. Biersack said.

The money cannot be collected lump sum, but on a monthly basis. If public funding is accepted like former Vice President Al Gore took for his presidential run the money cannot be used for salary.

"They were careful not to turn it into a way to earn easy money, but to make up for the time requirements that have to be invested in running a campaign. People of modest means would not be able to make that sacrifice," Mr. Biersack said.

Commissioner Karl Sandstrom, the lone dissenter, had constitutional concerns.

"He said he was sympathetic to the policy idea, but the problem is what statutory language allowed this to happen," Mr. Biersack said.

Ron Faucheux, publisher of Campaigns & Elections Magazine, said that absent a statutory prohibition, the FEC is within its purview to allow salaries, so long as it is fully taxed and reported.

"But I do think it has an appearance problem, and could easily be abused. Arguably, it would seem that it may also violate at least in spirit ethical bans on candidates taking unused campaign funds for their personal use," Mr. Faucheux said.

Cheri Jacobus, political consultant and director of Capitol Strategies, said the ruling will draw a "mixed-bag" response.

"The American people will have mixed reactions some think they should not be paid, but should make their case for being elected. But, this will allow and encourage a broader spectrum of Americans to run for office and that is a good thing for democracy.

"Some people would be excellent public servants but they can't afford to leave their jobs and lose needed income to run for office," Miss Jacobus said.

"But it could also affect fund raising, some potential donors could resent the fact their contributions to the campaign are going to something other than targeted mail, advertising and the get-out-the-vote effort, we'll have to wait and see what happens," she said.

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