Serious cash is changing hands amid the pomp and pageantry of the party conventions. Convention halls and party space, balloons and fireworks, free food and gift bags all cost money and lots of it. Campaign finance laws have tried to close loopholes in the electoral system, but according to a report from the nonprofit group Public Citizen (pdf), “[c]orporations and their lobbyists see the national nominating conventions as ideal opportunities to buy access and influence with the presidential campaigns, lawmakers, and party leaders.”
Corporations contribute millions of dollars in “soft money” to both parties by donating to each convention’s host committees. In 2004, Public Citizen reports that private donors gave $57 million to the Democratic convention and $86 million to the Republican convention. “As of August 2008,” Public Citizen reports, “173 organizational donors to the host committees have been identified, and all but two are corporations.” This year, the International Herald Tribune estimates that private donors will give some $112 million to the conventions.
Each host committee offers donor circles for corporations to buy into, ranging from $50,000 to $5 million, with perks associated with each level. Donors who give $1 million to the 2008 RNC host committee—a group that includes US Bank, Xcel, and Medtronic—are promised a private reception with Minnesota politicians Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. Norm Coleman, and the mayors of St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Bloomington.
Influence is also bought by hosting exclusive parties and receptions for politicians. One example is AT&T’s celebration for conservative “Blue Dog” democrats, which according to Public Citizen, “appears to violate the letter of the ethics rules.” Salon.com reporter Glenn Greenwald showed up outside the party and was quickly ushered away by the police. Greenwald writes: “Amazingly, not a single one of the 25-30 people we tried to interview would speak to us about who they were, how they got invited, what the party's purpose was, why they were attending, etc.” A video of Greenwald’s efforts is posted below.
Trying to curb the moneyed influence of the conventions, new laws have created confusing inconsistencies in 2008. At the highly publicized Kanye West show during the Democratic National Convention, the Sunlight Foundation’s Political Party Time Blog reports that House members were forced to pay a $90 entry fee. Senate members, who weren’t bound by the same ethics laws, got in for free. Reporters from Sunlight Foundation, predictably, were denied access all together.