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Public Funding Ban for Political Conventions Might Move Quickly

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

A Senate-passed measure to end public subsidies for the national political party conventions is expected to win quick approval in the House, delivering a long-awaited, if symbolic, victory to opponents of public campaign financing.

Authored by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the measure bars the political parties from receiving $18.3 million apiece for conventions from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which is underwritten by a voluntary $3 taxpayer checkoff. The Senate approved the Coburn measure in a bipartisan 95-4 vote as an amendment to the farm bill Thursday.

A companion measure in the House by Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) could also soon come up for a vote as an amendment to another bill, a Cole aide said, though the exact legislative vehicle is still under discussion. Cole’s bill has 34 co-sponsors, including one Democrat, Rep. Dave Loebsack (Iowa.)

Campaign finance reform advocates have opposed stripping the party gatherings of public money, arguing that the real problem with convention funding is that most of it comes from unregulated corporate and private donors who are rewarded with VIP treatment and special access to lawmakers.

Private contributions are expected to total about $37 million for this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., and $50 million for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., according to an analysis by the watchdog group Public Citizen.

“Coburn is ignoring the history of corruption that has plagued the party conventions by attacking the solution rather than the problem,” said Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman in a recent statement.

Public convention funding was enacted in the 1970s after a scandal involving the International Telephone and Telegraph Corp., which spent $400,000 to attract the Republican National Convention to San Diego, by Public Citizen’s account. The company had faced several antitrust suits but reached a favorable out-of-court settlement with the Nixon administration.

In theory, the public financing rules enacted then barred the political parties from paying for their national conventions with unrestricted corporate and union funds. But a series of FEC rulings created a way around that by allowing party officials to team up with wealthy individuals and corporations to set up unregulated “host committees” to promote the events. Those nonprofit committees, underwritten by big corporate and other private donations, now swamp public convention funding.

To Coburn, this just proves that the public financing system has failed to end the role of private money in the conventions. The Senate amendment approved Thursday would apply only to future conventions, not to this year’s gatherings. However, it allows for public funds disbursed to the parties for this year’s conventions to be returned to the Treasury to reduce the deficit.

“In these tough times, there’s no justification for spending public funds on booze, balloons and confetti when both parties are awash in campaign donations,” Coburn said in a statement Thursday.

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