Philadelphia—In 1972, President Richard Nixon very much wanted to hold the Republican National Convention in San Diego. Not only did he hail from Southern California, but San Diego was a fairly conservative city that carried a smaller risk of repeating the mass-scale protests and chaos that occurred four years earlier in Chicago.
San Diego didn’t have the financial wherewithal to host the convention, however, and city leaders were dragging their feet. Nixon needed some cash to make it happen, and he found an eager sponsor in the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. The White House made secret arrangements for ITT to pledge $400,000 to help fund the convention (about $2 million in current dollars.)
At the time, ITT happened to be facing an antitrust suit brought by the Department of Justice. Eight days after San Diego announced it would host the RNC, in large part thanks to ITT largesse, that antitrust suit was dropped. A memo from ITT’s top lobbyist laid out an explicit quid pro quo with the Nixon administration, with the post-script, “Please destroy this, huh?”
Nobody destroyed it. Washington Post columnist Jack Anderson soon got his hands on the memo and blew the story wide open. When Congress finally passed post-Watergate campaign reforms in 1974, the legislation provided for public funding of party conventions. For years party conventions had been an unseemly gathering of almost every elected official in a given political party amidst an orgy of corporate cash, but the 1974 reforms ended that—until now.
After years of whittling down the public-funding provisions for conventions, Congress finally abolished public convention funding entirely in 2014. So when delegates descend on Philadelphia this week, it will be primarily big donors who are keeping the lights on inside Wells Fargo Center. The same was true last week in Cleveland.
“Congress has completely withdrawn from the good-government role of having publicly financed conventions, and have turned it entirely over to the corporations and very wealthy individuals,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. “Now the conventions are entirely financed by special interests.”
This has been a long time coming. In 1996, the Federal Election Commission allowed “host committees” to pay for some convention-related costs, which quickly became a conduit for corporate cash. But the government still gave each convention $20 million in taxpayer funding, making it somewhat less necessary for parties to rely on wealthy patrons.