Congress actually got something done this week: It voted to end public financing of the quadrennial national party conventions. The money -- $126 million over 10 years -- will be shifted to pediatric research at the National Institutes of Health. That's a wise move.
These days, national conventions serve three functions. The most important of these is advertising: producing a three-day (or so) infomercial for the presidential ticket. There's evidence this is effective in providing information about the candidates to partisan voters who otherwise don’t pay much attention to politics. But I can’t think of any justification for the government to give money to the campaigns on the condition that it be used for this particular form of advertising.
The other two convention functions are no more compelling. The gatherings are an opportunity for party actors to get together, renew ties and conduct business, much like the national meetings of any organization. Parties are important to the nation and to democracy, but that's not a reason for public subsidies. And the conventions also conduct the formal business of the party and, again there’s no need for government subsidies for that. In any case, even if the convention-as-advertisement died, the parties could find ways of conducting their formal business that would be far less expensive.
The original justification for public financing of the conventions made sense. The idea was that the government would partially fund candidates in the nomination phase and then fully fund them in the general-election campaign. That would have created a hole in funding for the occasion when nominations were decided: the national party conventions. But that model is based on the pre-reform style of nominations. After 1968, the party ticket was decided during the primaries and caucuses (if not before), and the justification for federal financial aid at the convention stage disappeared.
David Firestone argues in the New York Times that Congress has erred by ending the funding because “big corporations and the rich” will step in to foot the bill, “putting politicians further in their debt and amplifying their ability to affect public policy.” But Firestone also acknowledges that private donations already are funding most of the conventions, along with the rest of the campaign. As a proponent of floors-not-ceilings campaign-finance reform, I appreciate the argument that the federal government should spend money when needed to ensure both parties can run meaningful campaigns. That hasn’t been a problem in presidential races for a long time. And if that’s the goal, a more sensible solution would be an outright no-strings-attached grant to the parties (or perhaps the campaigns).
The current system offers public financing for some of the general-election campaign, with an opt-out if candidates prefer private funding, plus public financing for one particular part of that campaign -– the conventions -– with no opt-out. The conventions should be subject to the same rules as the rest of the campaign.
If I had my choice, the money saved by eliminating public financing of the conventions would stay in the electoral system, perhaps for partial public financing of House campaigns, or at least for election administration. The U.S. spends too little money on democracy. But giving campaigns a financial incentive to do a particular type of campaign? That’s been a bad idea for a long time, and Congress is right to end it.
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