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.”
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