How Can Tennessee Get More Women In Elected Office?

This past year, the Tennessee House Elections and Campaign Finance Subcommittee (“the Subcommittee”) killed a bill that would allow candidates to use their campaign funds to pay for childcare.[1]  Republican Representative John Crawford argued that the bill raised too many questions; for instance, how could a candidate who is unable to afford childcare during a campaign afford to be a lawmaker during a legislative session?[2]

As of now, Tennessee’s campaign finance law does not explicitly address childcare in the relevant statutes.  Though, with the Subcommittee’s recent signaling, Tennessee candidates may safely assume that such a use would violate the state’s prohibition against using campaign funds for “personal use.”[3]  Personal use prohibitions exist for federal candidates and in every state because candidates should not be allowed to use their campaigns as “personal piggy bank[s].”[4]  Though, Democratic Representative Jason Powell, who introduced the Tennessee bill, explained that allowing the use of campaign funds for childcare would help recruit a wider range of candidates to run for political office.[5]  And indeed, Representative Powell does not stand alone in this logic.

The Federal Election Commission (“FEC”) explicitly granted three federal candidates permission to use their campaign funds for childcare when such expense directly resulted from campaign activity.[6]  Interestingly, the FEC received two dozen letters from members of Congress, and even a letter from former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in favor of a ruling that “would make it easier for other women and working parents to run for office.”[7]  Each of these advisory opinions received unanimous, bipartisan support from the FEC Commissioners.[8]  Likewise, states of varying political leanings, such as Alabama and New York, have followed suit in amending their campaign finance laws to permit candidates to use campaign funds for childcare, so long as that expense could not have existed but for the campaign.[9]

While it is fair to remain wary of potential abuse when expanding the list of permissible campaign fund uses, the FEC found that states can take measures to minimize the risk. One such precaution involves drafting statutes to require candidates to reimburse the campaign for childcare costs incurred at times he or she is not campaigning.[10]  The honor code and existing auditory functions can prevent abuse. Plus, the benefits are compelling.  Recently, the number of women in the U.S. Congress with children younger than eighteen nearly doubled in size to twenty-three congresswomen (twenty-one in the House, and two in the Senate), suggesting that mothers want to run.[11]  In Tennessee, women only make up 15.9% of Tennessee’s General Assembly,[12] which trails the U.S. congressional average of 23.7%.[13]  If the Tennessee General Assembly prioritizes increasing its citizens’ accessibility to the political process, it should reconsider a bill to allow candidates to use campaign funds for childcare expenses that directly result from campaign activities.


 

[1] See Tennessee Kills Bill Allowing Campaign Case For Childcare, Associated Press (Mar. 13, 2019), https://www.apnews.com/bf32d40bd9fc44eb82b62852f4362fb0.

[2] See id.

[3] See Tenn. Code Ann. § 2-10-114(b)(1).

[4] Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, A Campaign Is Not a Personal Piggy Bank, Brennan Ctr. for Justice (July 5, 2016), https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/campaign-not-personal-piggy-bank.

[5] See Associated Press, supra note 1.

[6] E.g., FEC Advisory Op. No. 2019-13 (2019); FEC Advisory Op. No. 2018-06 (2018); FEC Advisory Op. No. 1995-42 (1942).

[7] Danielle Kurtzleben, FEC Says That Candidates Can Use Campaign Funds For Child Care, NPR (May 10, 2018), https://www.npr.org/2018/05/10/610099506/fec-says-that-candidates-can-use-campaign-funds-for-child-care.

[8] See FEC Advisory Op. No. 2019-13 (2019); FEC Advisory Op. No. 2018-06 (2018); FEC Advisory Op. No. 1995-42 (1942). 

[9] See Associated Press, supra note 1; Sarah Gager, NY Candidates Can Soon Use Campaign Funds for Childcare, WSKG (July 30, 2019), https://wskg.org/news/ny-candidates-can-now-use-campaign-funds-for-childcare/.

[10] See FEC Advisory Op. No. 2019-13, at 3 (2019).

[11] See Julia Hellwege and Lisa Bryant, Congress Has A Record Number of Mothers With Children At Home. This Is Why It Matters, The Wash. Post (Feb. 15, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2019/02/15/congress-includes-more-mothers-with-children-at-home-than-ever-before-thats-likely-to-change-legislation/.

[12] See Women In State Legislatures for 2019, Nat’l Conference of State Legislatures (July 25, 2019), http://www.ncsl.org/legislators-staff/legislators/womens-legislative-network/women-in-state-legislatures-for-2019.aspx.

[13] See Women in the U.S. Congress 2019, Ctr. For Am. Politics, https://www.cawp.rutgers.edu/women-us-congress-2019.

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