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August 29. 2012 12:52AM

Charles Arlinghaus: Party conventions are taxpayer-funded indulgences


 

Political party conventions are giant, taxpayer-funded parties that have outlived their usefulness and should be eliminated. That Congress routinely votes to spend tens of millions of dollars on them is a sign of the members' own immaturity and helps explain the fiscal problem we have and they can't seem to fix.

This week, Republicans are gathering in Tampa, Fla., with Democrats to follow soon after in Charlotte, N.C. The events are misleadingly named presidential nominating conventions; in reality they are taxpayer-funded bacchanals that play no real role in nominating a President.

Our federal legislators have voted to send $18 million to each major political party to spend on anything they wish so long as they claim it is related to a convention (refreshments count) and another $50 million each to help pay for the security a really big bash of this sort requires. In the grand scheme of things, the $136 million the legislators have voted to throw parties for themselves is not a huge part of the federal deficit. But it is a perfect symbol of the problem.

Federal legislators are so unwilling to face their problems that they can't be bothered to eliminate a taxpayer subsidy for their own self-indulgence in the face of the most serious fiscal crisis of our lifetime. I know that $136 million won't solve a deficit problem that is 1,000 times that large. But you have to start somewhere.

Some legislators are more than willing to seek out government waste of small amounts as symbolic of the problem. We were treated to weeks of stories about extravagant staff conferences in Las Vegas that cost taxpayers a few hundred thousand dollars. Yet gigantic parties that spend a thousand times that amount of money are passed into law without a thought.

Today, political conventions are partly an infomercial for the presidential candidate, but mostly an excuse for grown men and women to behave like college students at parties, river cruises, dinners, hospitality tents and all other manner of celebration. Through it all, a thread will be woven where a few states at a time symbolically cast their votes for the presidential nominee, carefully orchestrated so the right state gets to be the one that “puts him over the top” while balloons drop, horns blare and people throw confetti.

All that confetti, all that booze, all those parties are subsidized by the taxpayers of the United States of America. We collect $136 million from your paychecks so it can be transferred to a bureaucracy of party apparatchiks earning a tidy living this year as party planners. Actually, we collect only two-thirds of it from your paychecks. The other one-third we borrow because taxes only cover about 65 percent of federal spending in America today.

Yet it is critical that we borrow money from whatever country is willing to buy our bonds because without the transfer, there might be fewer parties, less Scotch, or 20 percent less staff on the Committee on Arrangements. The taxpayer subsidy is about 23 percent of the cost of the party. Without money forcibly collected from you and me, it would be only 77 percent as much as fun. And we can't have that.

Don't get me wrong, national nominating conventions have a noble history and were started by the State of New Hampshire. John Kennedy, running for the 1960 presidential nomination, gave a speech in Dover in which he described conventions as a reform measure: “In 1832, disgusted with machinations of party chieftains, your state Legislature issued a call for the first national convention of a major political party. And it was that convention that nominated our first strong, popular President — Andrew Jackson.”

Conventions were broader based than selecting nominees by congressional caucus, and they became even broader over time. With the advent of primaries, conventions were less gatherings of insiders and more a reflection of how the people voted. Today, no convention decides the nominee; we know well ahead of time who won. From an electoral standpoint, they are merely the final signature on the paperwork.

Whether they should exist is for party apparatchiks to decide. As long as television networks are willing to air the infomercial part, I suspect they'll exist in at least a shortened form. But please stop forcing me to pay for them.

Very few people believe Congress is serious about the deficit. We might be more inclined to trust members of Congress on that issue if they would at least start by eliminating funding of their own self-indulgence.

Charles M. Arlinghaus is president of the Josiah Bartlett Center, a free-market think tank in Concord. His email is arlinghaus@jbartlett.org.


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