Williams: National conventions and taxpayer costs

Obama figurines for sale near the Time Warner Obama figurines for sale near the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C., on the first day of the Democratic National Convention (Sept. 4, 2012). Photo Credit: Getty Images

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If you enjoyed the Republican National Convention, get ready for the Democrats to do much the same thing. No weather issues anticipated for the Dems, however, whose convention kicks off Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C.

Just as business legend and lore claim that most deals are done on the golf course, much of the business at political conventions is done not on stage but in smaller breakfast groups and business-social interaction that is supposed to pass as simply passing the time of day. Both parties do it, spending a lot of money to do so.

Taxpayers foot part of the bill, regardless of which party receives one's loyalty -- or even if neither party is to your liking.

The Federal Election Commission first began public funding for the conventions in 1976. That year, each party received slightly more than $2 million in taxpayer dollars. Now the base is $4 million, but adjustments for inflation bring the total far above the base.

For 2012, each party received $18.2 million from the FEC to put on the respective conventions, according to the FEC website. Each host city also received $50 million from Congress for security. The grand total: $136 million. That's just the beginning. And for what? It's not like the presidential nominees aren't known far in advance of the great glad-handing gatherings. For the most part, today's conventions are more parties than politicking.

But even the government's largesse doesn't foot all the bills. The conventions cost around three times what the FEC antes up.

The Republican host committee, according to The New York Times, had no limits put in place by the national party and its $55 million budget was partially corporate-sponsored by Target, Chevron and Microsoft, among others.

According to the chief executive of the Tampa host committee, former election lawyer Ken Jones (with a Washington law firm that represents numerous lobbyists), sponsors weren't seeking access to lawmakers but only to advertise their brands. The committee was only following the law, said Jones, in accepting the use of Passats from Volkswagen and sport utility vehicles that operate on natural gas from Chesapeake Energy. Officials of the latter have in the past sought to block proposed restrictions on business. Republicans raised the balance of underwriting costs for Tampa from legal donors, including individuals who can write big checks without breaking a sweat.

Lobbyists and representatives of trade groups are attending the Democratic convention, too. And while the Democrats have banned the host committee from accepting donations from corporations, lobbyists and wealthy individual donors, the party did allow for "in-kind" donations. Democrats also have not yet disclosed their donors' list.

No such secrecy at the Tampa gathering, where donors like Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, were photographed smiling and waving at the cameras as if on the red carpet for an awards show. A fair exchange, one assumes, for the millions Adelson has poured into the Romney campaign and the $100 million he has pledged.

Not just rewarding big donors but asking for more is a part of both parties' conventions. Fundraising is a big part of the festivities -- and not just for the candidates who are in the spotlight. Future big players in both parties are also on display, glad-handing, backslapping and laughing uproariously at donors' bad jokes.

The Sunlight Foundation is tracking events at both conventions. Its research reports hundreds of "receptions, parties, brunches, bar bashes, yacht cruises, golf outings and other events" to put attendees -- and potential donors -- in a good frame of mind and close to the Washington movers and shakers that they believe might fulfill their wishes. USA Today's editorial page referred to these get-togethers as "unofficial twin conventions" and it's true.

In Tampa, a private reception with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had a $15,000 price tag. In Charlotte, attendees will meet and greet with members of the House Democratic Caucus.

We couldn't find the cost of admittance to that event, scheduled for "an exclusive undisclosed private venue." All indications are that, like dining in a fine restaurant where the menu has no prices, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.

Sponsorships for events were offered in Tampa and are on the table in Charlotte. Some groups sponsor almost identical events at both conventions, not putting all the donations in one basket. The National Rifle Association is one in that category.

Influence-peddling is a nasty phrase, so no one really calls it that. But it's done. That's the way the political game is played and everyone who has a game piece on the board knows the drill.

Game on.

Bonnie Calhoun Williams writes for the Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina. Her email address is williamsbc@IndependentMail.com.

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