Take the Money and Run?

Can presidential candidates receive a salary?

Ron Paul. Click image to expand.
Ron Paul

Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul hauled in $6 million in a “Money Bomb” fund-raiser Sunday, beating his previous one-day record. Other candidates have even deeper coffers—Hillary Clinton raked in more than $90 million in the first nine months of the year. Thus far, the entire field of candidates has received about $420 million altogether in donations: Can candidates pay themselves a salary from these funds while campaigning?

Yes, in some cases. According to rules from the Federal Election Commission (PDF), candidates who meet certain criteria can receive a salary from their campaign committees. It won’t be a raise from their last job, though, since the amount can’t exceed either their earnings from the previous year or the minimum annual salary of the office they seek—whichever is less. (In the case of the presidency, the salary is $400,000.) They’re paid on a pro-rata basis, so a candidate who drops out of the race after six months can pay himself only half of this annual salary.

But many presidential candidates don’t qualify. One reason is that the FEC bars incumbent officeholders in the presidency, Senate, and House of Representatives from drawing salaries as candidates in addition to their in-office salaries, so this applies to Ron Paul, Barack Obama, Dennis Kucinich, and others. The rationale behind the regulation is to make it easier for not-so-wealthy newcomers who don’t already hold these public offices to quit their jobs and run for office full-time, thereby giving them more of a fair shot against incumbents.

Seeking public funds for a presidential run, an arrangement where the government matches up to $250 of an individual’s contribution, also affects how much a candidate can be paid. This scenario currently applies to seven candidates, including John Edwards and John McCain. The FEC, which audits the campaigns that receive public financing, doesn’t consider a candidate’s salary to be a qualified expense and will ask for candidates to reimburse a portion of their nonqualified expenses to the U.S. Treasury. So if you’ve paid yourself $400,000 for the year and one-third of your total funding comes from the public match, then you’ll need to send a
check for about $133,000 back to Uncle Sam. (The requirement on matching funds applies only to presidential candidates.)

So, who’s left? Among the front-runners, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney. It would be highly unusual if any of them wanted the extra paycheck, though. For one, Giuliani and Romney, in particular, are not hurting for money. Second, it’s almost considered bad form for someone seeking the presidency—it could signal to supporters that you’re a less-than-stellar candidate. Alan Keyes, who joined the GOP presidential debate last week, was criticized by both Democrats and Republicans back in 1992 for paying himself more than $8,000 a month out of donations for his senate race in Maryland.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Paul S. Ryan of Campaign Legal Center and reader Matt Haber for asking the question.