‘The closest thing to eternal life is a government program,” Ronald Reagan once said. I suspect that today he might single out the $136 million in taxpayer subsidies that go to the two major parties for their national conventions. Established in the 1970s when people thought conventions might still decide something, the subsidies keep flowing and are even indexed for inflation. They now amount to welfare for corporate and union interests and the political class — providing the infrastructure for wheeling, dealing, and frolicking.
Few people suggest that the parties should abandon conventions completely, but the subsidies prop up an archaic structure that needs retooling.
“Some pundits lament the demise of the old conventions,” writes Michael Barone, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. “But they couldn’t be revived without banning long-distance telephone, the Internet, and jet travel.”
For most voters, the conventions today are increasingly an anachronism. Only 14 percent of people told pollster Scott Rasmussen that they wanted more than the nightly one hour of prime-time coverage the broadcast networks aired. Even with such limited coverage, ratings were down 30 percent or more this year from the 2008 Republican convention. Only one in five unaffiliated voters bothered to tune in for more than a few minutes.
In theory, about three-quarters of the taxpayer funding is earmarked for security, but that money is fungible — it makes the two overblown extravaganzas possible. Security for presidents, vice presidents, congressional leaders, and presidential nominees is paid for separately by the Secret Service and is provided wherever those figures go.
Some political players are blowing the whistle and challenging the taxpayer subsidies. Senator Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), a deficit hawk, calls the gatherings “summertime parties” and says having them financially fend for themselves would demonstrate “strong leadership to getting our budget crisis in control.”
Exposed to sober analysis, the practice of lavishing taxpayer-funded largesse on convention luminaries cannot be justified when the public is in uproar over abuses such as the General Services Administration’s spending $823,000 on a “team building” meeting in Las Vegas.
Indeed, it appears that conventions are slowly shrinking in length — if only because of intervention from Mother Nature. In 2008, Representative David Dreier of California, the Republican convention’s parliamentarian, developed an alternate plan under which all the legally required business at that year’s convention in St. Paul, Minn., could be conducted in a few hours in the event that the delegates and officials from the Gulf Coast had to go home to deal with Hurricane Gustav. This year, Democrats will conduct their business in three days instead of four. Republicans in Tampa found they could chop off a day from their schedule of activities with hardly anyone’s noticing.
Some politicians say conventions would shrink even more were it not for the government subsidy. “The staging overshadows the politics,” Senator Ron Johnson (R., Wis.) told a group of National Review editors last week. Count House Speaker John Boehner as another skeptic: “These are very expensive propositions to put on,” he told a group of reporters at a Christian Science Monitor lunch last week. He predicted that both Republicans and Democrats “will assess whether this type of convention is worth the tremendous resources put into it.”
I’ll go further: Whoever is elected president this November will have to go through such stringent belt-tightening when it comes to discretionary budget items that the convention subsidy will land on the chopping block. Any political party that dares to oppose getting rid of the subsidy will be in the crosshairs of voters.
So maybe Reagan will be proved wrong after all and the convention subsidy won’t be eternal. All of us will then discover that the two major parties and their allies can pay for whatever kind of convention makes sense to them without taxpayers having to foot much of the bill. Indeed, that’s just the way it was done from the time when the first convention was held — in 1832 to nominate Andrew Jackson — right up through the 1970s.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.