TAMPA, Florida - They put the "party" in politics.
Convention staffs in Tampa and Charlotte have been preparing for their time in the national spotlight by hosting expensive meetings, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on social media, and entertaining VIPs with exclusive parties.
However, these political expenses aren't paid by the political parties; they're paid with tax dollars.
The 10 News Investigators combed through public reports filed by the Republican Committee on Arrangements (COA) and the Democratic National Convention Committee (DNCC) and found expenses billed back to the taxpayers, like a $1,409 tab at Tampa restaurant Mise en Place; a $504 bill at Party City; $231 in alcohol at Total Wine & More; and $572 at Connolly's Irish pub in Charlotte.
Both major parties asked for, and received, $18.3 million in federal handouts this year for the political portion of their conventions. It's part of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund (PECF), a program created in the 1970s to maximize disclosures and minimize the influence of big money in politics. By choosing the "free" federal money for their conventions, each party agrees to spend no outside dollars on the event (the $50 million in security funds for each host city comes from the Department of Homeland Security).
But while the RNC and DNC bicker over how to close the federal deficit -- and they rake in hundreds of millions of dollars for political ads this summer -- both parties still chose to take $18 million from the U.S. Treasury to pay for their week-long political parties.
"If people knew that the money was being used to pay for liquor (and) parties...they would not be too pleased," said USF political expert Dr. Seth McKee.
"I get it, why you wouldn't want to use taxpayer money for campaigns and other purposes," said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus during a recent Tampa visit. "But then you can't ban the party from raising corporate dollars for a convention, right?"
With few restrictions on how their $18.3 million can be spent at the conventions, the parties can rack up bills that would make any local business owner cringe: more than $250,000 for social media services, $150,000 for website services, $215,000 for travel, and $42,000 for meetings/catering/beverages.
|GOP Committee on Arrangements Spending
||Payroll & Taxes
||Media Services & Consultants
||Social Media Services
|Source: Federal Election Commission, through 6/30/12
When asked about taxpayer dollars going toward alcohol, neither the DNCC nor the COA would provide detail as to how much of their meeting expenses were spent on spirits.
"Everything I'm doing is all about nominating Mitt Romney...everything," said COA spokesman James Davis, declined on-camera comment. "I'll let those (Federal Election Commission) filings speak for themselves."
The DNCC also refused requests for details of their expenditures, issuing a statement that read, "The DNCC is following all FEC guidelines for disclosure."
Adding insult to injury for taxpayers, the efforts to minimize the influence of money at conventions is diminished by the fundraising abilities of each city's host committee. The "non-political" organizations can raise unlimited funds from big businesses (expected to be $60-$70 million in each city) for convention expenditures like facilities and infrastructure. And in exchange for multi-million dollar contributions, corporations and special interests can secure exclusive access to politicians.
What is the PECF?
The Presidential Election Campaign Fund is funded by the "$3 checkoff" at the top of IRS Form 1040. When Americans file their tax returns and choose to re-direct $3 from the U.S. Treasury to the PECF fund, they are stockpiling savings for future presidential campaigns to access.
While fewer Americans are choosing the "check-off" than ever before, the fund is still about a quarter-billion dollars strong -- money that could be paying down the national debt but is instead sitting in an account untapped.
President Obama was the first presidential candidate in decades to decline federal funds for his 2008 campaign, so he could go raise unlimited funds through private donations. Obama and Mitt Romney have each declined the funds this year too. But the national parties still held their hands out for the convention subsidies every year since 1976.
Efforts to End the Subsidies
Despite their party's participation in PECF convention funding, Republicans introduced a bill this year that would "prohibit the use of public funds for political party conventions, and to provide for the return of previously distributed funds for deficit reduction."
The bill sailed through the Republican-dominated House, but has stalled out in the Democratically-dominated Senate.
The president and many fellow Democrats have opposed the effort to close the PECF, claiming the Republican bill would "open the floodgates" of corporate money into campaigns.
President Obama's administration issued a statement earlier this year opposing H.R. 359 "because it is critical that the nation's presidential election public financing system be fixed rather than dismantled."
The Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would save the U.S. $617 million over the next 10 years.
Every Florida Democrat in the House, including Tampa's Kathy Castor, opposed the bill.
Castor declined multiple requests to explain her vote.
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Party Time: Delegates booked into "party" resort
Protests Expected: 5,000 RNC protestors expected to march
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Not Done: Still some eyesores in downtown Tampa for RNC
Convention Schedule: Day 1