After a three-hour debate, members of the Federal Election Commission approved, by a 5-1 vote, an advisory opinion Thursday allowing lawmakers to use campaign funds to pay for security expenses to protect themselves and their immediate families. But it likely won’t be the last word from the agency, as it also set in motion a rule-making process on the matter.
The decision Thursday was in response to a request from the National Republican Congressional Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which had asked the FEC, amid increasing threats and after a violent assault on the Capitol, to determine whether hiring personal bodyguards constituted an appropriate use of political money.
But the issue took a controversial and partisan turn, as commissioners debated language to define what types of security personnel would be appropriate after Democratic House and Senate campaign arms raised concerns Wednesday. Democratic election lawyer Mark Elias wrote that the FEC needed to specify that only “bona fide” guards could be reimbursed, or it could open “the door to the improper use of campaign funds to compensate fringe militia groups under the guise of a legitimate security expense.”
“All of the commissioners have been grappling with this,” said commissioner Ellen Weintraub. “Everyone is concerned with the safety of members of Congress. … I originally thought that this was going to be an easier answer than it turned out to be, the more I thought about it.”
Weintraub also questioned why the GOP party committees, instead of a specific member of Congress, sought guidance.
GOP cites retribution fear
Jessica Furst Johnson, representing the Republican committees, said it was because all incumbents face security threats and also because individual members could face political retribution for attaching their name.
“So you can certainly understand that were we to attach any specific member’s name to that, we’d basically be feeding them to the wolves, as unfortunately detractors like to try to make politics out of something that was certainly not that,” she said.
Furst Johnson also said she was certain that “there would be many members on both sides of the aisle who would be willing to say that this is important,” but she noted that partisan politics had seeped into the discussion. She called it an “apolitical, bipartisan, legitimate request for security.”
The final version approved by the FEC noted that lawmakers must hire “bona fide” security guards but removed earlier language that spelled out that those firms needed to be licensed and insured.
The FEC said that senators and House members “may use campaign funds to pay for bona fide, legitimate, professional personal security personnel to protect themselves and their immediate families due to threats arising from their status as office holders when they are not otherwise being protected by federal law enforcement agents or the United States Capitol Police.”
The commissioners suspended the public meeting multiple times, and some appeared to be leaning toward giving the topic more time, but ultimately found common ground. The only commissioner not voting in support was Steven T. Walther, an independent who was picked by Democrats to serve on the FEC. He also called for a more formal rule-making on the matter.
“We think time is of the essence,” Furst Johnson told the panel, which met via video link.