American taxpayers help pay for the political conventions held every four years by both the Republican and Democratic national committees. The conventions cost tens of millions of dollars and are put on even though there have been no brokered conventions and every presidential nominee in modern history has been chosen well beforehand.
Taxpayers directly contributed $18,248,300 million to the Republican and Democratic national committees, or a total of $36.5 million, to hold their presidential nominating conventions in Election 2012. They gave similar amounts to the parties in 2008.
In addition, Congress set aside $50 million for security at each of the party conventions in 2012, for a total of $100 million. The total cost to taxpayers of the two national party conventions in 2012 exceeded $136 million.
Corporations and unions also help cover the cost of the conventions.
The cost of holding the political conventions, though, has come under intense scrutiny because of the nation's growing national debt and annual deficits. Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has referred to the political conventions as mere "summertime parties" and called on Congress to end taxpayer subsidies for them.
"The $15.6 trillion debt cannot be eliminated over night," Coburn said in June 2012. "But eliminating taxpayer subsidies for political conventions will show strong leadership to getting our budget crisis in control."
Where the Money Comes From
The taxpayer subsidies for political conventions come through the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. The account is funded by taxpayers who choose to contribute $3 to it by checking a box on the federal income tax returns. About 33 million taxpayers contribute to the fund every year, according to the Federal Election Commission.
The amount each party receives from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund to cover convention costs is a fixed amount index to inflation, according to the FEC.
The federal subsidies cover a smaller portion of the political convention costs.
In 1980, the public subsidies paid for nearly 95 percent of the convention costs, according to the congressional Sunset Caucus, whose goal is to uncover and eliminate government waste. By 2008, however, the Presidential Election Campaign Fund covered only 23 percent of the political convention costs.
Taxpayer Contributions to Political Conventions
Here is a list of how much each major party was given in taxpayer subsidies to hold their political conventions since 1976, according to FEC records:
- 2012 – $18,248,300
- 2008 – $16,820,760
- 2004 – $14,924,000
- 2000 – $13,512,000
- 1996 – $12,364,000
- 1992 – $11,048,000
- 1988 – $9,220,000
- 1984 – $8,080,000
- 1980 – $4,416,000
- 1976 – $2,182,000
How the Money is Spent
The money is used to pay for entertainment, catering, transportation, hotel costs, “production of candidate biographical films,” and a variety of other expenses. There are few rules on how money from the Presidential Election Campaign Fund is spent.
"Federal law places relatively few restrictions on how PECF convention funds are spent, as long as purchases are lawful and are used to 'defray expenses incurred with respect to a presidential nominating convention,'" the Congressional Research Service wrote in 2011.
By accepting the money the parties do agree, however, to spending limits and the filing of public disclosure reports to the FEC.
Here are some example of how money is spent by the Republican and Democratic parties on political conventions in 2008, according to Coburn's office:
Republican National Convention Committee:
- $2,313,750 – Payroll
- $885,279 – Lodging
- $679,110 – Catering
- $437,485 – Airfare
- $53,805 – Film production
- $13,864 – Banners
- $6,209 – Promotional items - gift bags
- $4,951 – Photography services
- $3,953 – Floral arrangement for convention
- $3,369 – Communications consultant
Democratic National Convention Committee:
- $3,732,494 – Salaries
- $955,951 – Travel
- $942,629 – Catering
- $374,598 – Political consulting fees
- $288,561 – Production music
- $140,560 – Production: Podium
- $49,122 – Photography
- $14,494 – Gifts/trinkets
- $3,320 – Makeup artist consultant
- $2,500 – Entertainment
Criticism of Political Convention Costs
Several members of congress including Coburn and U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, have introduced bills that would end taxpayer subsidies of political conventions.
"The major parties are more than capable of funding their own national conventions through private contributions, which already generate over three times the amount the federal grants provide for this purpose alone," the Sunset Caucus wrote in 2012.
Others have pointed out what they call the hypocrisy in congressional criticism of the General Services Administration for spending $822,751 on a "team building" meeting in Las Vegas in 2012 and lack of scrutiny over political convention spending.
In addition, many critics of taxpayer subsidies for political conventions say the events are unnecessary.
Both parties chose their nominees in the primaries and caucuses - even the Republicans, whose party implemented a little-noticed change in the primary system that lengthened the amount of time it took the eventual nominee to secure the 1,144 delegates necessary for the nomination in Election 2012.