Convention Host Committees Flush With Funds

Invesco Field in Colorado i i

Workers prepare the exhibition tent at Invesco Field, site of the finale of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. John Moore/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption John Moore/Getty Images
Invesco Field in Colorado

Workers prepare the exhibition tent at Invesco Field, site of the finale of the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

John Moore/Getty Images
glass of bourbon i i

The political conventions are paid for, in part, by lobbyists and corporate sponsors. This year, each convention will have a tasting bar of scotch, bourbon and premium cigars sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Daimler cars. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com
glass of bourbon

The political conventions are paid for, in part, by lobbyists and corporate sponsors. This year, each convention will have a tasting bar of scotch, bourbon and premium cigars sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Daimler cars.

iStockphoto.com

The national nominating conventions are known for a couple of things: there's the political show inside the arena and the piles of cash that make it all happen — as corporations, unions and wealthy individuals grab for the opportunity to entertain America's political class.

Fred Wertheimer, of the advocacy group Democracy 21, calls these events "very expensive parties being thrown, in essence, by the members of Congress and bankrolled by lobbyists." In particular, he is referring to receptions like one in 2004 honoring then-U.S. Rep Tom DeLay (R-TX).

This year, new rules require lobbyists to disclose all of the money they spend on convention events involving lawmakers, and lawmakers are barred from attending events to honor themselves.

But there still are plenty of ways to sling the dollars around.

A rundown of convention events lists eight pages of parties for Republicans and 28 pages for Democrats. The list was compiled by a Washington lobby firm and then leaked to The Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group.

Just one example: Each convention will have a tasting bar of scotch, bourbon and premium cigars. The bars are sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Daimler, among others.

This year does have a few downers, though. The housing finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — saddled with losses and falling stock prices — canceled their events.

And the new ethics rules put off other companies. Executives could even face criminal penalties if they violate some of the sponsorship rules.

Washington ethics lawyer Ken Gross says that some of his corporate clients are backing out of events that they would have paid for in the past.

"You just can't blindly walk into one of these events and plop $10,000 down on the table and say, 'We're good to go,'" he says.

Instead, corporations have found other convention money loopholes, which are even more lucrative. They're called host committees.

Host committees began as tokens of civic boosterism, but have morphed into unregulated money machines: state and national party leaders asking corporations for cash.

Some of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's top financial people have taken over soliciting for the Denver host committee.

At the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute, Stephen Weissman says the host committees are trading V.I.P. access for cash — pretty much like the now-illegal practice of "soft money" fundraising.

He says the host committee money really pays for the two biggest TV ads of politics — the conventions themselves.

"People in politics feel much more gratitude, we believe, for a large contribution than they do for attending a reception at which they can get a couple of drinks," Weissman says.

Each national party gets a federal grant of $16 million. Once, that was supposed to cover all the official goings-on. Weissman calculates that host committee donors now pay about 80 percent of the tab — and with their V.I.P. access, chatting up the grateful politicos should be easy.

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