By Molly K. Hooper - 01/30/14 06:00 AM EST
This could be the year that Congress bans taxpayer money to pay for presidential political conventions.
Public money for the four-day partisan shindigs has long been a political bull’s-eye. But effort after effort has fallen short even as criticism of the party-heavy gatherings has increased.
The bill, which was pushed through the House by Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), would redirect money from political conventions to pediatric research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The “Gabriella Miller Kids Research First Act” was named after a 10-year-old Virginia girl who had an inoperable brain tumor. Gabriella lobbied hard for raising money to find a cure for childhood cancer, making videos and helping build a grassroots movement. She died in October and was the focus of an emotional CNN segment last month.
Some Democrats in the House ripped the bill as a “Band-aid” approach, but it easily passed in December, 295-103. Seventy-two Democrats backed it.
The support of Sens. Kaine and Mark Warner (D-Va.) is a huge boost for the legislation. Senate Finance Committee ranking member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is also on board.
Cantor and Gabriella Miller’s parents, Mark and Ellyn — described by those familiar with the situation as the “driving force” behind the full-court press for action — convinced Kaine and Warner to champion Gabriella’s bill in mid-January.
Kaine told The Hill he was initially concerned about using the convention money but noted that both parties have sought to eliminate public funding for conventions.
“It’s not creating a precedent or doing anything out of the ordinary,” said Kaine, who was on Obama’s vice presidential short list in 2008.
It’s not uncommon for one chamber of Congress to pass a bill prohibiting taxpayer money for conventions. Several years ago, such an amendment crafted by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) passed the upper chamber, 95-5. But getting it to the president’s desk is another story.
Experts say that public money accounts for 23 percent of convention funding, the rest coming from sponsors. If the House-passed bill becomes law, it would present a major funding hole for the Republican and Democratic national committees.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who has long sought to prohibit taxpayer cash for funding the annual bashes, thinks the legislation — introduced by Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) — can pass this year.
He noted that public funding started in the mid 1970s after the Watergate scandal. But added that “the conventions are a lot more lavish and expensive than they used to be.”
Some have ripped the conventions — filled with martini bars and expensive cigars — as out of touch and over the top.
Criticism of the conventions escalated in 2012, with some Democrats and Republicans calling for changes — namely, cutting them down from four days.
Even though all major news outlets cover the conventions, little news is made at them because the affairs are highly scripted. There are a few exceptions, such as Clint Eastwood’s speech at the 2012 GOP convention.
The taxpayer subsidies that pay for part of the conventions come from people who opt to contribute $3 on their federal income tax returns.
Some Republicans, including Cole, have previously pushed to use the money that would be saved — $126 million over 10 years — to pay down the deficit.
Faced with a GOP conference determined not to spend money without paying for it in other areas of the budget, Cantor realized Cole’s bill was a good match.
“Cantor is really the guy who came up with the idea of putting the two bills together. He had a great idea. [The Gabriella Miller bill] needed a funding mechanism, and he called me up and said, ‘Would you give up your bill and let us wrap it into this?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ That’s a perfectly appropriate use of public funding — much better use than spending it on campaigning for political conventions,” Cole said.
Some campaign finance groups don’t support the bill. They say that even if the measure is signed into law, it doesn’t mean the money will be appropriated to the NIH pediatric research fund.
They accuse proponents of the “Kids First” bill of playing politics to defund presidential conventions.
“[The Gabriella Miller bill] is not a real effort to increase funding for pediatric research, but rather the fourth attempt by House Republican leaders ... to repeal the presidential public financing system,” according to a Jan. 14 letter sent to senators by Democracy 21, a group that advocates public financing.
Cantor’s office denies those claims, noting the majority leader has long been a proponent of increased funding for kids’ health research. He included the bill in an agenda wish list in January 2013.
There is a long way for the bill to go. It remains to be seen whether Senate Democratic leaders will move it through the lower chamber.
Kaine said, however, that the bill is a priority for him in 2014: “I don’t think it’s that controversial. … It’s trying to find the floor time for it is what we have to strategize about.”
Corporate money helped fund both parties’ conventions in 2012.
For the 2012 election cycle, the Republican confab took in about $40 million in corporate contributions from companies such as AT&T, Chevron, Google, Lockheed Martin and Microsoft.
Overall, the Tampa, Fla., committee raised about $57 million. That sum came with help from super-donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who gave $5 million to the GOP convention.
Democrats set up a separate committee, New American City, to accept corporate money and cover costs outside the convention hall in Charlotte, N.C.
The group raised about $19 million from companies during the 2012 campaign. That figure included donations from Bank of America, the Coca-Cola Co., General Electric, Time Warner Cable and Wells Fargo.
Kevin Bogardus contributed.