Name someone in Congress who used to be a hotel housekeeper. Or a factory worker. Or a fast-food worker. Or an ironworker, receptionist or Walmart cashier.
If examples aren’t coming to mind, there’s a good reason. People from working-class occupations — manual labor, service industry work, clerical jobs — seldom go on to hold elected political office in the United States.
Working-class jobs make up more than half of the U.S. labor force. But according to my research, in most years since the start of the 20th century, there haven’t been more than a dozen members of Congress with significant experience doing the kinds of jobs most Americans punch in for every day. (The figures are probably similar for the 19th century, but the data is less reliable.)
When the New York Times recently took stock of the career backgrounds of members of the 116th House, the newspaper identified a few “narrow but well-trodden paths through prestigious schools, lucrative jobs and local political offices.” The analysis found 12 Democrats and four Republicans who had ever held working-class jobs. In short, white-collar government is an enduring, and bipartisan, feature of U.S. politics.
A new proposal on Capitol Hill could help address the problem. On Thursday, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) introduced the first freestanding legislation designed to make running for federal office more accessible to middle- and working-class Americans: the Help America Run Act. (Porter also worked to include a similar provision in the Democrats’ omnibus election-reform bill, H.R. 1.) Campaigning for federal office is a full-time job that lasts months, and most candidates have to quit their day jobs.
The bill would allow candidates to use campaign money to pay for such essentials as day care, health insurance and elder care. The proposal would provide practical help to non-wealthy candidates and signal that some members of Congress are aware that the population of political officeholders is skewed toward professionals, businesspeople and the independently wealthy — and that they are aware that this harms democracy.
The 1971 Federal Election Campaign Act usually bars using campaign funds for “personal use.” Because candidates would have had to pay for pay for child care, elder care and health insurance whether or not they were running, they shouldn’t be treated as campaign expenses, that law says.
The Federal Election Commission can waive this rule case by case, but the appeals process is difficult (a recent review by the House Administration Committee found only two candidates who have succeeded in the last 20 years), and candidates have to prove that they wouldn’t have incurred the expenses if they hadn’t campaigned. Last year, Liuba Grechen Shirley, a consultant who worked from her home on Long Island, successfully argued that she wouldn’t have needed to pay for day care had she not run to represent New York’s 2nd Congressional District, against Rep. Steve King (R). (She lost the election.) But had Grechen Shirley been working outside her home and paying for day care before she ran, she wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on.
For the well-off, such rules are, at worst, an irritation. But they’re a major hurdle for most working people. (Specifically, the Help America Run Act would allow candidates to count as campaign spending their health-care premiums — but not deductibles or other out-of-pocket costs — as well as payments for the supervision of relatives defined as qualifying dependents by the IRS.)
My research suggests the bill would help. I’ve spent the past decade studying the factors that discourage qualified working-class Americans from running for elected office, and one of the most common concerns they cite is the difficulty of making ends meet while campaigning.
Of course, if the legislation passed, many qualified potential candidates would still shy away from running for office because they wouldn’t be able to cover other personal expenses — not least, groceries, rent and mortgages. Many would worry about not having a job to return to if they didn’t win office. Others would be passed over by party and interest group leaders in favor of more-familiar white-collar candidates.
Still, the Help America Run Act, as essentially the first word on this topic, is historic. Until now, no legislation in Congress has acknowledged the economic gulf between our elected representatives and the people they are supposed to represent. When the bill notes in its opening paragraphs that “everyday Americans experience barriers to entry before they can consider running for office to serve their communities,” it’s breaking ground. When it warns that “everyday Americans who have firsthand knowledge of the importance of stable childcare, a safety net, or great public schools are less likely to get a seat at the table,” it makes an important statement about what it means to create a government of and by the people.
The bill also serves as a model for state-level proposals (including in states such as Louisiana that are considering similar measures). It could even be a starting point for a larger conversation about how to give working-class Republicans and Democrats more of a voice in U.S. government. Another reform to consider might involve encouraging or requiring businesses to allow people to return to their jobs after running.
It took 230 years, but finally Congress is acknowledging that net worth is not a good indicator of someone’s potential to be a strong public servant. That declaration is cause for celebration in itself. And if the Help America Run Act passes, someday soon Americans might be able to name a member of Congress who was once a hotel housekeeper.