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Party conventions and convention parties: Dripping in irony

As the nation witnesses the spectacle we call the party nominating conventions, the ironies are dripping more than the corporately funded ice sculpture bars in Tampa Bay. The most obvious irony, of course, is that more money is being "Craig Holman"spent on the conventions yet fewer people seem to care.

Most of those who are thrilled about the conventions are those who attend them: delegates, lobbyists, corporate executives, budding politicians and lawmakers. The party conventions host huge influence-peddling and fundraising events between those who want something from government and those in government who can affect those interests. Many of the convention-goers are so caught up in the spectacle of the rich and powerful that they simply do not see some of the ironies.

Take Wednesday’s event in which former Gov. Mitt Romney toasted about 50 of his top campaign bundlers in an exclusive dinner aboard a private yacht. These individuals each brought in roughly $1 million to the Romney campaign. Romney is the first major presidential candidate in 12 years not to disclose the true identities of his bundlers, and one of the very few presidential candidates in modern history not to reveal much about his taxes and Cayman-based investments. Apparently, it is best not to draw too much attention to the wealth. Yet, the floating party aboard the “Cracker Bay” yacht adorned with the Cayman Islands flag was just one of a dozen such exclusive Romney events honoring the ultra-rich group’s successes in raising pots of money for the Romney campaign machine.

As one woman who lives on a much smaller boat in the marina said to ABC News: “I think it’s ironic they do this aboard a yacht that doesn’t even pay its taxes.”

Still countless other soirées held in restaurants and nightclubs across Tampa cut right to the core of what is terribly wrong with today’s conventions. The nominating conventions are primarily funded by corporations with business pending before the federal government. Private money flows into the conventions through “host committees” in contract with the national parties that raise and spend as much corporate and special-interest money as they can possibly get their hands on.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In May 1971, the giant International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (IT&T) pledged up to $400,000 to attract the 1972 Republican National Convention to San Diego. The company was facing several anti-trust lawsuits under the Nixon administration. Just eight days after the selection of San Diego for the Republican convention, Attorney General Richard Kleindienst agreed to an out-of-court anti-trust settlement with IT&T that the company considered very favorable. It appeared as though the attorney general was paying back the favor with another favor.

In the wake of this scandal, Congress approved a system of public financing for presidential elections, which included full public financing of the conventions, thereby removing the potentially corrupting corporate money from the convention process. The public financing program created a system in which the parties, in exchange for accepting reasonable spending ceilings on their conventions, would receive a block grant from the federal government to pay for nearly all convention expenses.

Sadly, in the 1980s, the Federal Election Commission poked a gaping loophole in the law by allowing the parties to set up host committees to solicit private funds for the conventions even while taking the public grant, set today at $18.3 million. As it stands now, the 2012 Republican host committee plans on raising at least another $55 million in corporate funds, while the Democratic host committee expects to raise $37 million in wealthy special-interest funds. (The Obama campaign has committed the host committee not to raise direct corporate or lobbyist contributions, though it may raise in-kind corporate goods and services. The host committee, falling short in its $37 million goal, set up a sister nonprofit group to raise corporate money to help pay administrative expenses.)

Today, private funds far outpace the public grant – and we know from previous conventions that nearly all of this money comes from companies that have business with the federal government. According to the Campaign Finance Institute, of the 173 organizational donors to the 2008 conventions, all but two were corporations. In a demonstration of their political agenda, nearly every one of the 173 had also made extensive congressional lobbying expenditures, as well as campaign contributions to federal candidates. Convention donors want something from the federal government – and they are willing to pay.

Don’t overlook the irony: While the public financing system was established to offset the corruption scandal of IT&T, one of the largest corporate contributors in 2012 – which even rented Jackson’s Bistro across from the convention center for its wining and dining of delegates, lawmakers and party bosses – is telecommunications giant AT&T. We have gone full circle back to the Nixon era.

You need not take my word on the ironic return to undue influence-peddling and scandal at the conventions. Former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, serving as a convention commentator for ABC News and Inside Edition, noted: “Lobbyists and special interests aren’t going to be spending their money to promote and support events like this out of altruism and the goodness of their heart. They’re doing it because they have an agenda.”

Jack knows.

Craig Holman, PhD is Public Citizen’s government affairs lobbyist. Follow him on Twitter @CBHolman.