Using campaign funds for personal use is prohibited.
Commission regulations provide a test, called the "irrespective test," to differentiate legitimate campaign and officeholder expenses from personal expenses. Under the "irrespective test," personal use is any use of funds in a campaign account of a candidate (or former candidate) to fulfill a commitment, obligation or expense of any person that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as a federal officeholder.
More simply, if the expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, then the personal use ban applies.
Conversely, any expense that results from campaign or officeholder activity falls outside the personal use ban.
Spending that isn’t personal use
In addition to the "irrespective test," Commission regulations include other uses of funds that do not constitute personal use and thus are permissible uses of campaign funds.
Gifts to charity are not considered personal use expenses as long as the candidate does not receive compensation from the charitable organization before it has expended the entire amount donated. Note that the amount donated must have been used for purposes that do not personally benefit the candidate.
Transfer of campaign assets
The sale or transfer of a campaign asset to either the candidate or a third party does not constitute personal use as long as the transaction is made at the fair market value.
On special occasions, campaign funds may be used to purchase gifts or make donations of nominal value to persons other than the members of the candidate’s family.
The candidate may receive a salary from his or her campaign committee only under the following conditions:
- The salary must be paid by the principal campaign committee;
- The salary must not exceed the lesser of the minimum annual salary for the federal office sought or what the candidate received as earned income in the previous year;
- Individuals who elect to receive a salary from their campaign committees must provide income tax records and additional proof of earnings from relevant years upon request from the Commission;
- Payments of salary from the committee must be made on a pro-rata basis (a candidate may not receive a whole year’s salary if he or she is not a candidate for an entire twelve-month period);
- Incumbent federal officeholders may not receive a salary payment from campaign funds; and
- The first payment of salary shall be made no sooner than the filing deadline for access to the primary election ballot in the state in which the candidate is running for office.
Salary payments may continue until the date when the candidate is no longer considered a candidate for office or until the date of the general election or general election runoff. For special elections, payments may continue from the date that the special election is set until the date of the special election.
Automatic personal use
The regulations list some expenses that are automatically considered to be personal use. Based on these rules, the following paragraphs discuss what kinds of expenses the campaign can and cannot pay for.
Household food items and supplies
The candidate cannot use campaign funds to pay for food purchased for daily consumption inside the home or supplies needed to maintain the household. The campaign may, however, pay for food and supplies for fundraising activities and campaign meetings (even when they take place in the candidate's home).
Funeral, cremation and burial expenses
Campaign funds cannot be used to cover expenses related to deaths within the candidate’s family. They may, however, be used to cover funeral, cremation and burial expenses for a candidate or campaign worker whose death arises out of, or in the course of, campaign activity.
The campaign cannot pay for attire for political functions (for example, a new tuxedo or dress), but it can pay for clothing of de minimis value that is used in the campaign, such as T-shirts or caps imprinted with a campaign slogan.
Campaign funds may not be used for tuition payments unless the payments are associated with training campaign staff. In AO 1997-11, the Commission allowed a federal officeholder to use campaign funds to cover her costs for a Spanish immersion class that she took to better communicate with her constituents.
Mortgage, rent and utility payments
The campaign may not pay for mortgage, rent or utilities for the personal residence of the candidate or the candidate’s family even if part of the residence is being used by the campaign. However, the Commission has allowed the use of campaign funds to pay for home security enhancements made in response to threats to an officeholder's safety. In these cases, the security upgrades were not considered personal use because the threats would not exist irrespective of the officeholders’ candidacy or duties as an officeholder.
In addition, the campaign may pay for long distance calls made for campaign purposes from the candidate’s residence or the residence of his or her family.
The campaign may not pay for investment expenses such as acquiring securities on margin unless all of the investment and its proceeds are used for the purpose of influencing the candidate’s election for federal office or for one of the permissible non-campaign uses of funds discussed on this page.
The campaign may not pay for admission to sporting events, concerts, theater and other forms of entertainment. Campaign funds may be used, however, if the entertainment is part of a specific officeholder or campaign activity. They may not be used for a leisure outing at which the discussion occasionally focuses on the campaign or official functions.
Dues, fees and gratuities
Campaign funds may not be used to pay for dues to country clubs, health clubs, recreational facilities or other nonpolitical organizations unless the payments are made in connection with a specific fundraising event that takes place on the organization’s premises. Campaign funds may be used for membership dues in an organization that may have political interests.
Salary payments to candidate’s family
Campaign funds may be used to make salary payments to members of the candidate’s family only if:
- The family member is providing a bona fide service to the campaign; and
- The payments reflect the fair market value of those services.
Any salary payments to family members in excess of the fair market value constitute personal use.
Case-by-case determination of personal use
For other expenses not mentioned on this page, the Commission will determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether the expense is one that would exist irrespective of the candidate's campaign or duties as a federal officeholder and would be considered a personal use expense. For example, the Commission addresses payments for meals, travel, vehicles, mixed-use and legal expenses on a case-by-case basis.
Campaign funds may be used to pay for meals during face-to-face fundraising events. By contrast, a candidate may not use campaign funds to take his or her family out to dinner.
Campaign funds may be used to pay the costs of travel to an activity that is related to the campaign or to the candidate’s duties as a federal officeholder. Thus, the costs of travel for a candidate (and the candidate’s spouse and minor children) may be used to pay for travel to functions directly related to the campaign or those directly connected to the individual’s official responsibilities as a federal officeholder. The regulations, however, prohibit the use of campaign funds for personal expenses collateral to travel—either campaign or officeholder—unless personal funds are used to reimburse the committee.
Campaign funds may be used to pay for a vehicle that is used for campaign-related purposes, assuming that the costs related to the personal use of the vehicle are de minimis. Campaign funds cannot be used to pay for expenses relating to the personal use of a campaign vehicle unless those expenses are de minimis, that is, unless they are insignificant in relation to the overall vehicle use.
In the event of travel or vehicle expenses that commingle personal and campaign or officeholder activity, the beneficiary of the personal use expenses must reimburse the committee within thirty days for the entire amount associated with the personal activities (the amount over and above what the cost would have been had the trip/vehicle use been solely for campaign/officeholder-related purposes). The reimbursement does not constitute a contribution.
The committee must maintain logs of the expenses to help the Commission determine on a case-by-case basis what portion was for personal use rather than for campaign-related activity or officeholder duties.
Using the irrespective test summarized on this page, the Commission decides on a case-by-case basis whether legal expenses are considered "personal use" and thus are expenses that a candidate may not pay for using campaign funds.
Relating to campaign or officeholder activity
In several advisory opinions the Commission has said that campaign funds may be used to pay for up to 100 percent of legal expenses related to campaign or officeholder activity, where such expenses would not have occurred had the individual not been a candidate or officeholder.
Relating to other activity
In specific situations the Commission has concluded that campaign funds may be used to pay for up to 50 percent of legal expenses that do not relate directly to allegations arising from campaign or officeholder activity (for example, activity prior to becoming a candidate or officeholder or activity of a business owned by the candidate/officeholder) if the candidate or officeholder is required to provide substantive responses to the press regarding the allegations of wrongdoing.
Salary, compensation and other payments paid on behalf of candidates
Generally, when a third party (not the candidate or the candidate's committee) pays for personal use expenses, the third party makes a contribution, subject to the restrictions and limitations of the Federal Election Campaign Act.
No contribution will result, however, if the payment would have been made irrespective of the candidacy. A third party may make the following payments on behalf of a candidate without making a contribution:
- Payments to a legal expense trust fund established under House and Senate rules;
- Payments for personal living expenses made from funds that are the candidate’s personal funds, including an account the candidate holds jointly with a family member; and
- Payments that began prior to candidacy.
For example, if the candidate's parents had been making college tuition payments for the candidate's children, the parents could continue to do so during the campaign without making a contribution.
Salary or compensation paid to candidate
Compensation paid to a candidate by a third party as a continuation of payments made prior to candidacy (for example, payments of salary) are not considered contributions as long as such payments:
- Result from bona fide employment independent of the candidacy;
- Are exclusively in consideration of the services provided as part of this employment; and
- Represent pay not in excess of that normally received for such services.
Promotion of candidate’s books
Generally, the expense of marketing a book would exist irrespective of a candidate’s campaign, and thus a campaign cannot ordinarily use its funds to pay such an expense. In limited situations, however, the Commission has permitted the use of campaign funds to promote a candidate’s book, as follows:
- A campaign could incur de minimis costs to post on its website material promoting the book’s release and linking to an online bookseller.
- A campaign could incur costs for planning book-related events and handling press and public inquiries where the candidate donates royalties to charitable organizations and thus does not personally gain from the use of campaign assets to promote the book.