If the national political conventions have come to be symbolized by “generic ‘party-time’ ways,” as Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer has said, then why should they be publicly funded?  The lack of an easy answer to this question may have hastened passage of H.R. 2019, which repeals public financing of the conventions and authorizes transfer of remaining funds to pediatric research.  In a blog post yesterday, the Campaign Legal Center’s Meredith McGehee called the bill’s passage “a despicable act.”  But the reform community unwittingly greased the skids for passage, creating a rhetorical environment surrounding the conventions that discredited them and turned their public funding into a target.

The conventions are more than big parties.  They are, after all, “elections” under the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971.  (On this blog last June, Kip Wainscott discussed some of the effects that changing their schedules could have on the operation of the campaign finance laws, and on election administration.)  Just as the Electoral College might someday actually decide the Presidency, a future convention might someday actually decide the nomination, as past conventions indeed have done.  But even in the ordinary course, one might still contend that the ritual communication of party viewpoints is a public good that encourages a strong democracy.  There is ample reason to support giving taxpayers the opportunity to finance the conventions, as the law—until now—has done.

But there is something about the conventions, apart from their largely unrealized status as “elections,” that has caused reform proponents in recent years to single them out for legislation.  Reform proponents have presented the conventions as unique occasions for corruption.  In part, they said, this was because the conventions were “vehicles for the infusion of massive amounts of soft money into both political parties, and to their candidates and officeholders.”  In part, it was because members of Congress were “feted … at lavish parties sponsored by special interest donors ….”  And in part, they said, it was because the parties used the conventions “both to solicit soft money and to reward soft money donors.”  Rigorous interpretation of the soft money ban, changes to congressional gift rules, and robust public financing were all necessary to guard against these threats, they contended.

On the soft money ban, reformers achieved mixed success, when the Federal Election Commission in 2003 applied the McCain-Feingold law to the conventions.  The FEC held that the convention committees were national party agents that could not raise or spend soft money.  But it held also that host committees and municipal funds were not party agents, and thus could raise unlimited funds under previous rules.  It held that national party agents could only solicit up to $5,000 for a host committee or municipal fund from any one federally permissible source.  But the FEC also held that individual federal candidates could solicit unlimited amounts for these committees and funds, regardless of source.

On the gift rules, reformers achieved greater success when the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 banned Members from attending parties at the conventions held in their honor and paid for directly by lobbyists, or by entities that employ or retain lobbyists.  The law treated the conventions uniquely in this way.  No such prohibition applied during the rest of the year, or anywhere else, or even—as the congressional ethics committees later made clear—on the day before the convention is gaveled into order.  Still, “[t]he new ethics rules are designed to end the worst influence-seeking events that took place at the national conventions,” said Democracy 21 President Wertheimer.  “These were the lavish, lobbyist-funded parties thrown to ‘honor’ and ‘recognize’ specific members of Congress, members of powerful congressional committees and members of congressional caucuses, who were feted like royalty by the lobbying community.”

On public financing, Republicans turned the tables on the reformers.  They seized the same cannon that the reformers had once fired to support the soft money and gift restrictions—the image of the convention as Roman bacchanalia—turned it, and fired it back at the reformer lines.  “The question before the Members today is simple,” Representative Eric Cantor told the House in December.  “What is more important—finding cures for our children or balloons for party conventions and catering for politicians?”  Reformers strongly disputed the notion that convention public funding repeal had anything to do with pediatric research.  They must have recoiled from Representative Tom Cole’s declaration in the same debate: “I can tell you as a former chief of staff on the Republican National Committee who put on the convention in 2000, they do not need it. They absolutely do not need it. They can raise all the money they need from private sources, just as their nominees raised money from private sources.”

But Representative Cantor’s disdain for “balloons” and “catering for politicians” only echoed reform proponents’ own past arguments.  “The Democratic and Republican presidential nominating conventions are unabashed festivals of corporate cash,” Common Cause and Democracy 21 told the FEC in 2003.  If this is true, then why should the conventions be unabashed festivals of public cash?  A successful case for public funding requires defense of the conventions’ civic value, and a consistent argument that they are something more than just a big party.