WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted Thursday to shut off public funding for the two biggest taxpayer-backed parties in the country, the Democratic and Republican national conventions, backing an amendment that would stop future funding and ask for this year's money back.
The measure does not require the conventions to give back the money they've already received, and the House would have to pass similar legislation for the measure to go into effect.
Although the mass shindigs to nominate the parties' White House candidates in late summer are funded for the most part with private donations, Uncle Sam has shelled out $36.8 million out of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund, which comes from the $3 check-off box on tax returns.
Asked about the latter money and the chance of returning it, a Democratic convention official noted that much of it has already been spent and suggested that the amendment is best read as applying to the future, since it only bans spending after 2012. The official's Republican counterparts did not immediately comment.
Security costs for the party conventions are paid separately, so the campaign-fund money can all go to lodging, food, booze and logistics for the nation's political elite as they celebrate their presidential champions. At the same time, lobbyists, corporations and deep-pocketed interest groups will swarm the sites -- in Tampa for the Republicans and Charlotte, N.C., for the Democrats -- offering plenty of other entertainments and fundraising opportunities.
The 2008 conventions attracted some $118 million in private donations, most of it from wealthy individuals, corporations and unions. The latter organizations had spent $1.6 billion lobbying the federal government over the previous four years, according to a report from the Campaign Finance Institute.
The Democrats are turning it down a notch this year, capping contributions at $250,000 and barring corporations. But that does nothing to stop the extravaganza that will go on around the main event.
It all makes the much-maligned $830,000 Las Vegas bash of the Government Services Administration look like a PTA potluck.
Coburn spoke up for his amendment on Tuesday at the start of the debate over the $1 trillion farm bill.
"We're borrowing money from the Chinese to fund a hallelujah party in both Tampa and Charlotte this year, each one of them getting $18.4 million. It's time that kind of nonsense stops," he said.
"We don't have $18.4 million to spend on a Republican convention or a Democrat convention. The nominees of both parties are known," said Coburn. "What we have done, besides spending $100 million in security for both of those events, $50 million apiece, we sent $18 million to both of those heads of those parties to spend it any way they want to spend it. What is wrong with us?"
At the time expecting to lose the vote, Coburn pointed out the irony of his colleagues' outrage when it was the GSA spending money.
"I want you to look in that realm of the universe in America where all the politicians reacted with disdain with the GSA conferences spending [$830,000] in what was said to be a foolish way," Coburn said. "If they made any comment about the excesses of government agencies on conferences and parties, how can they not apply the same standard to their own political party?"
"Everyone who comes and lobbies us says, 'Yes, I agree there's a problem, but please don't take anything away from me,'" Coburn said, arguing that his fellow lawmakers were essentially putting themselves in the same position. "There's no way we should ever again send any money to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party" for a convention.
Supporters of the convention-funding system have argued that it helps limit the influence of outside groups and donors and have said that the national party conventions are essential parts of the American democratic process.
"If we can't do this little, simple thing of leading by example, then our country is doomed because that means the very significant problems in front of us we can't solve either," Coburn said Thursday in brief remarks before the vote.
No senators spoke in opposition to the amendment.
This story has been updated to reflect comment from a Democratic convention official.
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.
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