RNC chair calls for reversal of ‘soft money’ ban to finance conventions


RNC Chairman Reince Priebus bangs the gavel to officially close the Republican National Convention (RNC) on Monday, Aug. 27, 2012. (Toni Sandys/The Washington Post)

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Tuesday that political parties should be able to raise “soft money” to pay for their presidential nominating conventions now that federal funding for the quadrennial events will be cut off, seeking the kind of big checks parties have not been able to collect since the passage of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

Addressing reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, Priebus noted the recent passage of a bill that will eliminate federal funding for the major party conventions – a subsidy that amounted to more than $18 million for both the Democratic and Republican conclaves in 2012. (The measure does not impact funding to pay for security at the gatherings.)

The RNC chairman said there is now a need to change the law and allow the parties – rather than separate host committees – to raise large sums directly to put on the events. Priebus said he wants to work with Congress to change the law.

“I don’t have an issue with taking away money for the convention, but I do have an issue with blocking the party from being able to raise money on behalf of the host event,” Priebus said. “To me, my position has been I don’t care if you take the check-off money away – in fact, I’d probably agree with it – but then allow the national parties, both the DNC and the RNC, to go in and raise the money. That seems pretty reasonable to me. The laws that restrict the national party and me in particular from soliciting soft money on behalf of the host committee to pay for the convention – I would like to see that restriction lifted.”

His comments came after the Senate quietly approved a House bill last week that takes $126 million over 10 years out of the Presidential Election Campaign Fund and authorizes it for use in pediatric medical research. White House press secretary Jay Carney said Friday that President Obama would sign the bill.

The measure guts one of the functions of the campaign fund, which was created after the Watergate scandal and is financed by a $3 voluntary taxpayer check-off. The program provides matching funds for presidential candidates, as well as money for the presidential nominating conventions. Since the parties can no longer accept unlimited sums, those events are now put on by separate host committees, usually run by party operatives.

In 2012, the $18 million federal subsidy proved essential for the cash-strapped Democratic convention host committee, which struggled to reach its $37 million budget after Obama barred it from accepting money from corporations and lobbyists. (The committee ultimately circumvented that ban.) The GOP put no such restrictions on the Republican convention host committee, which pulled in more than $57 million.

Despite that success, RNC spokesman Sean Spicer said the current prohibition on allowing parties from soliciting major checks for the presidential conventions makes it difficult for the host committees to bring in the necessary funds.

“Our point is, why is there a restriction on the party raising money to host its own convention?” he said. “We are prohibited from saying to our donors, ‘Will you help us with the convention?’”

Advocates for stricter campaign finance restrictions challenged that argument, saying that the host committees effectively act as arms of the party.

“The notion of, ‘Let’s take off these limits for the political parties when it comes to conventions’ is particularly ironic, since they already are, for all intents and purposes, gone,” said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a group that supports tightening the rules on political contributions.

The real intent, she said, is “the dismantlement of all of the limits that are on money in the federal system.”

Court battles over the McCain-Feingold law showed that “soft money was part of a corrupting system,” she added. “It sounds like Mr. Priebus is wanting to go back to the whole notion of the buying and selling of access.”

Spicer said the 2002 legislation made the problem of money in politics worse, by shifting big sums from the parties to unaccountable outside organizations. That trend accelerated with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

“All the quote-unquote reformers who say that McCain-Feingold was a fix are probably eating their words,” he said. “There’s more money in politics than ever before.”

Matea Gold covers money in politics for The Washington Post.
Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
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