Panic buttons and bulletproof vests: Fearful lawmakers stock up on protection

Source: Politico | March 18, 2021 | Daniel Payne

“What may seem like an idle threat may not be an idle threat anymore,” said one Massachusetts legislator, describing the post-Jan. 6 world.

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.

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