HEY, THERE, TAXPAYERS! If you turn on the TV tomorrow to watch the Democratic convention, you should realize that you are paying for the big show. Gavel to gavel, you're footing the bill for the podium design, the balloons, the banners, the music, the security, the sound system and the convention staff.
If the Democrats put on a dull show, you will have every right to complain, because each day of the convention will cost you more than $1 million. This should at least buy good entertainment, speeches equal to the best of William Jennings Bryan, and a presidential ticket worth voting for. If you get none of the above, you will know that another government program doesn't work.
Your tax money, moreover, is still paying leftover bills from the Republican convention that so many of you didn't bother to watch. You're also paying a large share of the bills from the primary campaigns of both parties -- including tabs for booze and limousines and the like -- and you will pay all costs of the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns this fall. In 1976 the candidate and convention subsidies cost you about $76 million; this year, with a postal subsidy and the price of nearly everything going up, the political subsidies will cost you at least $105 million, probably more.
Now, that may not be much by government standards, but I bet it seems like a lot of hay to you. Especially when you consider what you are getting for your money.
Perhaps you're among the rough 70 percent of taxpayers who do not check off a dollar on their tax returns for the Presidential Election Campaign Fund. So you may think that you're not paying for Ronald Reagan's pollsters or Jimmy Carter's TV ads. I hate to shatter what may be your last illusion, but you are paying for those items.
You see, the people who check off a dollar do not send an extra dollar to the IRS to pay for campaigns and conventions. They pay the same taxes they would normally pay, and so do you. All of their dollars and all of your dollars go into the U.S. Treasury. Then part of their money -- and part of yours -- goes to the special campaign fund. In other words, the 30 percent of taxpayers who do check off appropriate money for the 70 percent who do not. If this doesn't sound very democratic to you, just ask the people at Common Cause. They say it's a reform.
Anyway, back to the main point: What are you getting for your money? First, you might consider the quality of candidates this year. Are they worth $100 million? (Are they worth $100, you might ask.) Perhaps we judge contemporary leaders too harshly; maybe we should look to history as a comparative guide. But sometimes history is even tougher.
During the 1980 primary season, historian Barbara Tuchman said of the various presidential candidates: "Look what we're offered! God! The country that produced George Washington has got this collection of crumb-bums!" Mort Sahl offered similar veiws a few years ago. Sahl noted that during the American Revolution, when our population was far smaller than it is today, we had leaders such as Thomas Jefferson, Samuel Adams and Thomas Paine. Now, he said, we have leaders such as Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter. His conclusion? "Darwin was wrong."
Actually, the folks at Common Cause never promised us that public funding would buy us smarter, more competent or nobler presidents. But they did suggest that it would buy us presidents less beholden to "special interests." The idea was that the taypayers (willing or unwilling) would outbid the special interests. So we taxpayers invested more than $25 million in Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Yet the National Education Association, with a much lower bid, bought itself a Department of Education. The maritime interests, also lower bidders, won Carter's support for a cargo preference bill. Democratic Party fat cats did not contribute nearly as much as taxpayers, but several of the fat cats won diplomatic posts.
Anne Cox Chambers and her husband contributed $51,000 to Democratic candidates and commmittees from 1973 through 1977; Carter appointed Cambers ambassador to Belgium. Milton Wolf and his family donated nearly $50,000 to Democratic candidates from 1974 through 1976; Carter made Wolf ambassador to Austria. Marvin Warner and his family gave $57,000 to Democratic candidates and committees in 1973-76; Carter appointed Warner ambassador to Switzerland.
A cynic might say that, thanks to the election law's contribution limits, ambassadorships cost less than they used to; but some of them, at least, are still for sale. So much for the Common Cause theory about public subsidies -- which Common Cause and the Democrats would now like to extend to congressional candidates as well.
You might think that the 1980 candidates aren't much to write home about, or perhaps you are reserving judgment until the fall campaign. In either case, you probably hope that you are getting something else for your money. How about the conventions? Your Presidential Election Campaign Fund (the dollar check-off kitty) gives each party up to $4.4 million for convention expenses, balloons and all, and the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEEA) grants each host city up to $3.5 million for "security assistance." (The LEAA program, which started with the 1972 conventions, pays mainly for police officers' overtime.)
All of this adds up to the more than $1 million a day for each convention while it is in session. And that sum doesn't even count the many costs picked up by the host cities. Are conventions worth that price?
There are several ways to judge. You can view them as conferences in which the Great Issues of the Day are discussed -- although not necessarily debated. Convention managers learned a lesson from the '68 Democratic convention debate on Vietnam and from the '72 Democratic convention debates on everything else. About the last thing they want on their prime-time TV shows is a live issue. The Republicans managed to get through their July convention without any platform debate. The unlucky Democrats seem unable to do the same; but I doubt that their platform debate will be worth $1 million a day.
Alternatively, you can judge each convention as a huge party in which the delegates booze it up and whoop it up and generally have a good time. The only problem is that you're not invited to the party. Even if you were, watching adults wear silly hats and use strange noisemakers may not be your idea of fun. Is a national New Year's Eve party worth $1 million a day?
Finally, you might rate each convention strictly as a form of television entertainment. Is the Billygate sideshow as good as "Archie Bunker's Place"? Did Grandpa Ronnie read his lines well enough to compete with "Little House on the Prairie"? Perhaps, as a new reform, we should establish a Taxpayers Board to Judge the Entertainment Value of the Conventions and to raise or lower the public subsidies accordingly.
The GOP might receive a bonus for the Great Ford Flirtation at its convention. If the Democrats stage a spectacular family fight, with broken dishes and blood all over the floor, they too, would win a bonus. On the other hand, negative points would be assigned for the most boring speeches. tAn alternative would be to provide an automatic rise or fall of subsidies according to the Nielsen ratings.
The subsidy for junk mail is lower than the others; this year it is $4 million. I suppose it is not very charitable to call party fund-raising letters "junk mail," but I have received a couple of the Democratic letters and find it hard to call them anything else. For some reason, I'm not on the Republican sucker lists.
The two major parties slipped the postal subsidy through Congress in 1978, by making party committees eligible for the non-profit bulk rate. Then last year, after realizing that several of the minority parties were taking advantage of it, they voted to exclude the minority parties but keep the subsidy for themselves.
This year the minority parties struck back with a lawsuit in federal court, charging discrimination. (John Anderson's independent campaign joined the suit late in the game.) The minority parties and Anderson won their case, though they are still excluded from the other political subsidies.
Now there's an effort in the House to cut off the postal subsidy altogether. The subsidy is worth about a nickel for each letter in a bulk mailing; so it's worth bushels of money to the Republicans, who send out huge volumes of direct mail. You can expect to hear moans of pain and grief if the effort to end the subsidy is successful; the party fund-raisers will sound like banshees.
But I think the opponents of the subsidy have a point: It's bad enough to have junk mail overflowing from your mailbox when the sender pays for it, but it really hurts when you have to pay for it. (Nobody knows the trouble you've seen; nobody knows the sorrow.)
You should also know about the waste factor. Even if you don't think that all of the political subsidies are a waste, some aspects of them may bother you. Since you are forced to pay for the subsidies, you should at least have the right to demand no-frills campaigns. That is not what you are getting now. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that federal subsidies are leading politicos to pay for services that used to be volunteered, and to buy things they would have to skip under a private-financing system.
In the old days, for example, campaigns had plug-in coffee pots; now they have coffee services. Back in January, Howard Baker's campaign paid a firm nearly $240 just for coffee service. In the old days, campaign volunteers decorated a headquarters. The chic thing now is to pay professional decorators for the work, as when George Bush's campaign paid $231 to the Freeman Decorating Co. of Des Moines to spruce up a campaign headquarters. But that was small potatoes. The Carter-Mondale committee listed on its June FEC report a debt of $19,250 to National Maintenance & Construction of Beltsville, Md., for "Office Alterations." In the old days, that would have been a do-it-yourself job.
The Carterites also apparently had a big party, perhaps a fundraiser, in Nashville early this year. As of June, they still owed the Nashville Tent & Awning Co. $561; owed the Famous Brands Liquor Store of Nashville $785; and owed Party Rental Services, Inc. of Nashville $524. That must have been some party. Don't you think that you should have been invited, since your matching funds will cover about one-third of the costs? Perhaps we should write into the law a guarantee that you may attend any political party you helped finance. If that were to come about, I fear they would offer you lemonade instead of bourbon, but at least the principle of fair play would be established.
I don't know what the Carter-Mondale volunteers do, but they certainly don't sweep the floors or dust the desks at headquarters. By June the Carter committee owed $4,732 to a Washington firm for janitorial service. And their leaders don't travel second-class, either; they owed $903 to a Brooklyn firm for limousine service. And $261 to an El Paso firm for "Meetings-Drinks."
The Carter committee also provides employment for some of the president's relatives. Annette Carter received a mere $972 in take-home pay for June, but Chip Carter received $1,316. Jeff Carter received $1,750 in June for consulting contracts having to do with "computer service management." If they had only thought of it, the Carter high command might have kept brother Billy out of trouble by adding him to the campaign payroll, too.
How about the Republicans, those good fiscal conservatives? Surely they are more frugal with the taxpayers' money? Well, no, not exactly. Republicans, I'm sorry to say, have become big spenders from the East when it comes to their conventions. (Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress voted last year to increase the convention subsidies. This may sound a little bit like a conflict of interest to you, but Common Cause says its OK.)
Late in 1979, and early this year, the Republican committee paid $15,000 to Mark Ambruster of Los Angeles for "program script for convention." In the good old days, conventions didn't have scripts. But that was just the beginning. The GOP paid $20,000 to Water Mill Productions, Inc. of New York City for a design and development contract having to do with "podium design." Water Mill received another $85,000 of your tax money in the spring for construction supervision, a large-screen projection system, and other items.
But Syd Vinnedge Productions Inc. of Los Angeles has received a lot more of your money. By June 30th they had been paid $200,000 -- and were owed another $50,000 -- for the "convention theme presentation program," whatever that was.
The Republicans paid a fair amount of tax money for films, too. By the end of June they had forked over $45,000 to Palisades Communications of Santa Barbara for an "Auxiliaries Film," and they still owed Palisades another $20,000. They sent $37,000 to A. B. Productions, Inc. of Los Angeles for a film to be used on the first day of the convention. I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to think that the GOP should have held its convention in Hollywood instead of Detroit.
There's more, much more, about the Republican convention that might dismay you. They paid $493, for example, for a "timer, etc. for hearings." That was either a mighty expensive timer or a mighty big "etc."
But enough of that. The question now before the house is: Will Ronald Reagan, that fierce opponent of big government, box some ears or whack some fannies and get the Republicans into line? You would like to think that, and so would I, but the outlook is not encouraging.
Although Gramps is philosophically opposed to public funding of campaigns, he accepted $4.4 million in matching funds for his 1976 primary campaign. In 1980 he has received nearly $7.3 million in matching funds -- far more than any other primary candidate. And just after the Republican convention, he applied for and received $29.4 million for the fall campaign. That comes to a total of $41 million in campaign subsidies for a man who does not believe in them. Gramps is no dummy.
He reminds me of the Walrus in Lewis Carroll's poem about "The Walrus and the Carpenter." You may remember that the Walrus felt a little guilty about helping the Carpenter eat the oysters. He even wept for the victims. Upon hearing this story, Alice said that she liked the Walrus best, "because he was a little sorry for the poor oysters." The storyteller responded: "He ate more than the Carpenter, though. You see, he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn't count how many he took . . ."
I suppose Gramps can say that he really has no choice about accepting the subsidies. Carter accepts subsidies and, because of the contribution limits, Reagan could not compete with him by using private money alone. Maybe Gramps has an out on this one.
But as for John Anderson -- who enthusiastically voted for the subsidies from which he is now excluded -- and Common Cause leaders -- who wonder why the subsidies haven't brought us to the Promised Land -- they are like a candidate in Edwin O'Connor's "The Last Hurrah." Charlie Hennessey said of the young man that "when he adds up two and two he gets five and a half for an answer." He was, said Charlie, "a good-looking youngster with nothing upstairs but a mass of floating custard."