Paying to Party
It's no secret that the national conventions are no longer dramatic arenas in which the parties decide their presidential nominees or, for that matter, anything else of much importance. But that doesn't mean the conventions are entirely substance-free--the real action just takes place outside the professionally produced spotlight, in VIP suites, on golf courses and at theme parties.
This year, the two conventions will cost at least $85 million ($50 million for the GOP; $35 million for the Democrats), the vast majority of which comes from corporate giants like AT&T, Microsoft and General Motors. Not coincidentally, all three are entangled in costly disputes with the Feds. Almost all of the other fifty-plus major contributors--including the telecommunications, healthcare, utilities, insurance, financial services, gas and aircraft and airline industries--have clear political interests with the federal government.
Both parties have planned events where corporate donors can mingle with party bigwigs. For example, the Republican National Committee is hosting a golf tournament at a posh Philadelphia country club for top contributors and GOP leaders; two weeks later, Democratic leaders will dine with elite donors at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles.
The corporations bankrolling the conventions say that "civic pride" motivates their six- and seven-figure donations. In reality, the conventions are a unique political and public-relations opportunity for Big Business. For example, BP Amoco, which is helping to fund the Democrats' convention, has its logo plastered all over Los Angeles. Grateful convention-goers will receive phone services from SBC Communications and transportation courtesy of General Motors.
Federal law barred corporate funding of conventions until 1994, when the Federal Election Commission authorized unlimited tax-deductible contributions by donors, whose identities the parties can keep secret until months after the conventions. The result: Nobody yet knows exactly who has given how much for this year's extravaganzas. The Democrats released a list placing top donors in broad categories; the Republicans disclosed a "partial list." But neither side's list shows the specifics of how the money is spent.
Individual legislators' corporate-sponsored bashes, which are particularly popular among fat-cat donors and politicians, supplement the official $85 million tally. Legislators "are collected in one place, they are away from the daily barrage of routine business, and they are more relaxed than usual," explains a brochure for a Mardi Gras party honoring Democratic Senator John Breaux. Sound illegal? Don't worry: "Special exceptions to various ethics rules allow corporations to offer hospitality and stage events that otherwise might be prohibited or limited by state or federal codes," the brochure promises.
In that spirit, Republican Congressman Billy Tauzin is hosting a party with generous funding from telecom behemoths BellSouth, Comsat and SBC Communications. What do they expect for their $25,000 contributions? A chance to chat with Tauzin, who chairs the Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee. Tauzin isn't alone. Fellow Republican Joe Barton, chairman of the Energy and Power Subcommittee, will attend a Texas-style barbecue that the American Gas Association, the Edison Electric Institute, the National Mining Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute are throwing for him. The same groups are hosting a party for Representative John Dingell, the Commerce Committee's top Democrat. Sony, Disney, the Recording Industry Association of America, News Corporation and Seagram/Universal Studios are sponsoring a party for Republican Mark Foley, who chairs the GOP Task Force on Entertainment. And so on.
The national conventions used to be an integral component of American democracy. Now they're just another channel through which corporations corrupt our political life.