ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

If you thought the upcoming political conventions were all about the politicians, well, think again. The conventions involve a whirlwind of spending by special interests.

Corporations, unions and wealthy individuals will all be grabbing the opportunity to entertain the political class, and they'll be contending with some new regulations, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: The conventions are known for a few things. There's the political show inside the arena.

Mr. TERRY McAULIFFE (Former Chairman, Democratic National Committee): The 44th Quadrennial National Convention of the Democratic Party will now come to order.

(Soundbite of cheering)

OVERBY: That was Terry McAuliffe, firing up the Democratic convention four years ago. And the conventions are known for the schmoozing outside the arena.

(Soundbite of chatter)

Unidentified Man: Oh, it's great to see you.

Mr. TOM DELAY (Former House majority leader): You look good, man.

Unidentified Man: Oh, thank you.

MR. DELAY: (Unintelligible) how you've been great. (Unintelligible).

OVERBY: That was Tom DeLay, then the House majority leader, at a reception at the '04 Republican convention. And the conventions are known for the piles of cash that make it all happen.

Mr. FRED WERTHEIMER (President and CEO, Democracy 21): These events, in effect, were very expensive parties being thrown in essence by the members of Congress and bankrolled by lobbyists.

OVERBY: That's Fred Wertheimer of the advocacy group Democracy 21, referring specifically to receptions like the one honoring Tom DeLay.

This year, new rules require lobbyists to disclose all money they pay for convention events involving lawmakers. And lawmakers are barred from attending events to honor themselves. But there are still plenty of ways to sling the dollars around.

A rundown of convention events lists eight pages of parties for Republicans, 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. It's sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council, plus Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Daimler cars, and others.

The year does have a few downers. The mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac - saddled with losses and falling stock prices - canceled out of 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 was on an airport payphone when he remarked that some of his corporate clients are backing out of events that they would have paid for in the past.

Mr. KEN GROSS (Attorney): You just can't blindly walk in to one of these events and plop down $10,000 on the table and say we're good to go.

OVERBY: Instead, corporations have found other convention money loopholes which are even more lucrative. They're called host committees. What began as tokens of civic boosterism have morphed into unregulated money machines: state and national party leaders asking corporations for cash.

Some of Barack Obama's top financial people have taken over soliciting for the Denver host committee. At the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute, Steven Weissman says the host committees are trading VIP 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.

Mr. STEVEN WEISSMAN (Associate Director, Campaign Finance Institute): People in politics feel much more gratitude, we believe, for a large contribution than they do for attending a reception in which they can get a couple of drinks.

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

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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