2016 Conventions Face Massive Shortfall Thanks to Congress

There goes the balloon budget.

Expensive balloons at the ready in the rafters at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
March 19, 2014, 10:04 a.m.

Con­gress man­aged to do its job last week, passing le­gis­la­tion to boost re­search fund­ing for pe­di­at­ric dis­orders and present­ing a bill to Pres­id­ent Obama that the White House says he’ll sign. The na­tion should be dan­cing in the streets (Con­gress ac­tu­ally ac­com­plished something and for sick chil­dren, no less!) but the na­tion­al party com­mit­tees are less-than-pleased about the cost.

The Gab­ri­ella Miller Kids First Re­search Act, which was cham­pioned by House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, provides $126 mil­lion over 10 years to fund re­search in­to pe­di­at­ric aut­ism, can­cer, and oth­er dis­eases. But it’s paid for by tak­ing away tax­pay­er fund­ing for na­tion­al polit­ic­al con­ven­tions.

That presents a big prob­lem for the na­tion­al party com­mit­tees. A quarter of the spend­ing on the 2012 Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion in Tampa, Fla., and 28 per­cent of the funds for the 2012 Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion in Char­lotte, N.C., came from tax­pay­er money. His­tor­ic­ally, the oth­er 75 per­cent is covered by loans and dona­tions, largely from cor­por­ate spon­sors and a few wealthy donors.

The con­ven­tions are typ­ic­ally as­tro­nom­ic­ally ex­pens­ive af­fairs. The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, and the 2012 Tampa Bay Host Com­mit­tee spent about $74 mil­lion com­bined on their con­ven­tion, while Demo­crats put about $66 mil­lion down to of­fi­cially nom­in­ate Pres­id­ent Obama for the second time. The RNC and the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee each re­ceived $18.2 mil­lion from Uncle Sam — i.e. the tax-pay­ing pub­lic — to help off­set those costs.

Even so, Demo­crats closed their con­ven­tion in 2012 mil­lions in debt, even­tu­ally re­ly­ing on Duke En­ergy — whose CEO sat on the con­ven­tion’s host com­mit­tee — to for­give a $10 mil­lion loan.

Without pub­lic fund­ing, both com­mit­tees are in a bind and could be­come even more re­li­ant on cor­por­ate spon­sor­ship and wealthy donors. Re­pub­lic­ans are plan­ning to hold their con­ven­tion earli­er in 2016, some­time in June or mid-Ju­ly rather than Septem­ber, put­ting even more pres­sure on the party to raise fund­ing quickly. Demo­crats are also look­ing at an earli­er sum­mer con­ven­tion.

The DNC wouldn’t com­ment on how they’ll close the fund­ing gap, though chair­wo­man Debbie Wasser­man Schultz told re­port­ers Tues­day that the com­mit­tee is ex­amin­ing its op­tions. “There are a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ap­proaches and we’re eval­u­at­ing what’s the best dir­ec­tion to try to do that,” Wasser­man Schultz said, ac­cord­ing to the Dal­las Morn­ing News.

But ab­sent pub­lic fund­ing, there aren’t many al­tern­at­ive fund­ing mech­an­isms avail­able to party op­er­at­ives. The host cit­ies can’t bear the bur­den of ad­di­tion­al fund­ing either; just look at the Char­lotte host com­mit­tee’s failed at­tempt to raise its stated goal of $36.7 mil­lion (a little more than half the cost of the ac­tu­al con­ven­tion) in 2012. At that point, Demo­crats had said that they wouldn’t use any cor­por­ate dol­lars to put on their Char­lotte event, but as the event neared, they had to renege on that vow, pulling in mil­lions from Duke En­ergy, Bank of Amer­ica, and AT&T, among oth­ers, to meet their fun­drais­ing goals.

An­oth­er op­tion would be to so­li­cit even more of those kinds of cor­por­ate spon­sor­ships, which already ac­count for a big chunk of the fund­ing for both con­ven­tions.

But the com­mit­tees hope Con­gress will come to their res­cue. “I’m con­fid­ent Con­gress will now en­act vi­able al­tern­at­ives to al­low party com­mit­tees to fund fu­ture con­ven­tions. Con­ven­tions serve a valu­able role in the pro­cess of nom­in­at­ing can­did­ates for pres­id­ent and vice pres­id­ent of the United States,” RNC spokes­wo­man Kirsten Kukowski said.

RNC Chair­man Re­ince Priebus has called on Con­gress to pass le­gis­la­tion al­low­ing the com­mit­tees to raise their own fund­ing for the con­ven­tions. The RNC and DNC, not to men­tion the pres­id­en­tial cam­paigns, are hardly go­ing to warm to the idea of spend­ing pre­cious fund­ing that could be put to­ward tele­vi­sion ads and last-minute get-out-the-vote ef­forts to, well, se­cure a bunch of hotel rooms and a massive con­ven­tion space.

But un­der Priebus’s idea, which was co­di­fied in the RNC’s Growth and Op­por­tun­ity Pro­ject re­port re­leased a year ago this week, the com­mit­tees would be able to raise ad­di­tion­al fund­ing above the max­im­um con­tri­bu­tion lim­its that would be spe­cific­ally ear­marked for con­ven­tion activ­it­ies.

“Our point is, why is there a re­stric­tion on the party rais­ing money to host its own con­ven­tion?” Priebus said at a break­fast Tues­day hos­ted by the Chris­ti­an Sci­ence Mon­it­or. “We are pro­hib­ited from say­ing to our donors, ‘Will you help us with the con­ven­tion?’ “

But that le­gis­la­tion doesn’t seem to be headed any­where in a Con­gress that has struggled to ac­com­plish much of any­thing, par­tic­u­larly when so many of its mem­bers are call­ing the vote to re­move tax­pay­er fund­ing for con­ven­tions a vic­tory.

The bill elim­in­at­ing said fund­ing faced very minor op­pos­i­tion in Con­gress. The Sen­ate ac­tu­ally passed it with un­an­im­ous con­sent.

Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, who has long ar­gued against tax­pay­er fund­ing for con­ven­tions, touted the vote as a ma­jor vic­tory. “[I]t’s good news to the tax­pay­ers of Amer­ica that after something like three dec­ades, we will not be us­ing tax money to pay for the polit­ic­al con­ven­tions — for bal­loons and all the rest that are part of a polit­ic­al con­ven­tion that ought to be paid for by will­ing donors, not by the tax­pay­ers of the United States,” Mc­Con­nell told re­port­ers last week.

In­creas­ingly, the con­ven­tions are get­ting a repu­ta­tion for canned speeches, crown­ing an in­ev­it­able nom­in­ee, bal­loons — and not much else. As the parties have worked to plan out every second of the three-to-four-day events, tamp­ing down the po­ten­tial for sur­prise and, well, news, the Amer­ic­an pub­lic — or at least, the tele­vi­sion ex­ec­ut­ives who broad­cast the events — have largely lost in­terest. Tele­vi­sion net­works went from air­ing more than 118 hours of “gavel-to-gavel” con­ven­tion cov­er­age in 1952 to broad­cast­ing just six hours of speeches in 2012. Rat­ings have also suffered over the years.

Still, the parties ar­gue that the con­ven­tions are rare op­por­tun­it­ies for the faith­ful to gath­er and re­define what it means to be mem­bers of their parties, not to men­tion sell their mes­sage to a tele­vi­sion audi­ence without pay­ing for the air­time, however ab­bre­vi­ated it may be. The con­ven­tions also rep­res­ent an im­port­ant chance for party op­er­at­ives to re­ward their top donors and form re­la­tion­ships with new ones.

Neither com­mit­tee has ad­mit­ted that they will need to make cut­backs for the 2016 fest­iv­it­ies, however. But with such a deep hole cut in their pock­ets by Con­gress, they may need to re­con­sider some of the pomp and cir­cum­stance — and, yes, the bal­loons. Hey, it worked just fine for Demo­crats in Char­lotte.

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