Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance received an unusual inquiry from a state lawmaker: Could campaign funds be used to purchase bulletproof vests, gas masks and pepper spray?
It was a question the independent state agency, which regulates political spending and hands down advisory opinions on campaign finance issues, had never been asked before.
Yet in the weeks and months after the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, it is the kind of query that is surfacing with regularity both in Washington and in state capitals across the country. Alarmed by a growing number of threats, harassment and scenes of violence at government buildings, lawmakers in both parties are seeking clarity from election agencies on whether they can spend campaign dollars and taxpayer money on security and personal protective equipment — everything from body armor to panic buttons at home.
“Threats have an impact,” said Michigan Democratic state Rep. Kevin Hertel, who noted that threats against state legislators are on the rise in his state. “You can hear the fear in people’s voices when they talk about these issues.”
In Michigan, where law enforcement foiled a plot to kidnap the governor last year and heavily armed protesters sought to storm the floor of the House chamber, Hertel wanted to know if lawmakers could use campaign money on a home security system and ballistic vests to protect against an active shooter.
The request is still pending.
“Protective gear became one of those necessary office expenditures,” Hertel explained. “It became a cost of doing the job.”
The same is true in Washington, where the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee asked the Federal Election Commission in January for an advisory opinion on whether campaign funds could be used to hire bodyguards.
Two days after that request, 32 members of Congress asked House leadership if they could pay local law enforcement and buy security upgrades for their homes and offices out of their office allowances. They were recently notified that they would receive a $65,000 increase to use for additional security.
“Between Jan. 6 and the massive increase in threats, you worry a lot about your family and your staff,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who led the effort. “It’s not just to protect you, it’s to protect people near you.”
Threats against members of Congress have soared since 2016, when 902 threats were investigated by Capitol Police. By 2018 — one year after the 2017 shooting that wounded Republican House Minority Whip Steve Scalise — 4,894 cases were investigated.
So far in 2021, the number of cases has almost doubled compared to the same period a year ago, according to recent testimony by acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman.
The U.S. Capitol Police released a statement on March 8 saying security infrastructure and manpower upgrades will be needed to provide adequate protection for members of Congress.
Law enforcement agencies do not have enough resources to handle these threats, which often follow members back to their districts, Gottheimer said. The letter to House leadership not only asked that members be allowed to use some of what’s known as their ‘member representational allowance’ — essentially, their congressional office budget — to hire local law enforcement as security, it also asked for efforts to keep lawmakers’ home addresses private.
“All these things are much more real, I think, after Jan. 6,” Gottheimer said.
Massachusetts state Sen. Michael Moore’s request concerned specific self-defense equipment — like pepper spray and bulletproof vests — for himself and his staff.
“As a supervisor or boss, I should at least entertain any reasonable request that is going to make them feel safer at work,” Moore said. “I think you may see more states allow this type of expenditure.”
Moore said that he and his colleagues have discussed the increase in conspiracy theories and threats they hear from constituents. Though some seem relatively harmless, others unnerve members, their families and their staffs.
The Democratic state senator, who spent much of his career in law enforcement, still remembers the first threat that raised serious alarms for him — a caller from several years ago who told him “all Jews should burn.”
“After that threat… I went home and I talked about it with my family, and I think that’s the first time I had some sort of concern,” Moore said.
Things have gotten worse since that call, he said.
“I think it may deter good people from running for office because they see what elected officials are going through,” Moore said, adding that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol intensified the concerns. “When you’ve seen what you’ve seen down in Washington… you don’t know. What may seem like an idle threat may not be an idle threat anymore.”
After his request to use campaign funds for self-protection was approved several weeks ago by the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, he began pricing items like pepper spray, ballistic vests and bulletproof blankets for his staff.
Hertel’s request in Michigan and the request made by the NRCC and NRSC are still pending.
The FEC released a new draft rule two weeks ago that would permit the use of campaign money for security personnel and home security upgrades, like cameras, sensors, locks and panic buttons if “reasonably specific and ongoing threats” exist — and if U.S. Capitol law enforcement recommends the upgrades.
Capitol law enforcement, which covers the U.S. Capitol Police or the Sergeant at Arms in either chamber, has already recommended home security systems for all members.
Yet the draft rule hasn’t necessarily ameliorated concerns. The national GOP campaign committees said the new rule would actually make it more difficult for members to get additional security. That’s because members of Congress would no longer be able to proactively protect themselves and their families as they could under a 2017 FEC opinion, which allowed home security upgrades before specific threats are made.The FEC contends that, with the current assessment from Capitol law enforcement, all members could install or upgrade their security systems.
In Michigan, the secretary of state’s office declined comment on Hertel’s request.
The entire issue has made for some unsettling discussions between Hertel and his three-year-old son, who watched the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol unfold on television with his father and didn’t understand the difference between the U.S. Capitol and the Michigan Capitol.
“To this day, he will still say: ‘Are the bad guys still at the Capitol?’” Hertel said.