Taxpayers paying for convention observers


TAMPA — Not everyone can afford to go to Tampa—but taxpayers are footing the bill for some executive branch officials: the members of the Federal Election Commission.Federal Election Commission logo

Commissioners Donald McGahn and Matthew Petersen arrived at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Tuesday, dressed down compared to their usual formal attire at FEC public meetings.

The shaggy-haired McGahn, in jeans and a polo shirt, and Petersen, sporting a neater cut and wearing khakis with a button-down shirt, hung out Tuesday afternoon at the hotel with convention passes around their necks.

Both will head to the Tampa Bay Times Forum this evening to officially “observe” the proceedings—a tradition that’s not new. The FEC chairwoman, GOP Commissioner Caroline Hunter, is also in Tampa.

Each party’s nominating convention is partially paid for by the public–an amount upwards of $36 million, according to the latest estimates of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The money comes from a voluntary earmark that taxpayers make when they check a box, designating funds for the presidential elections, on their tax forms. That public bankroll is administered by the FEC.

Though the commissioners are officially here as “observers,” McGahn joked that he is not quite sure how to accomplish the mission: Is he supposed to look around and say, that’s a permissible use of funds and that is not?

McGahn and Petersen are no strangers to politics. Appointed by President George W. Bush, McGahn was formerly a counsel to another Texas Republican, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is now fighting a conviction — and possible jail time — for election fraud. McGahn married DeLay spokeswoman Shannon Flaherty at a wedding the (reportedly weepy) former congressman attended. Petersen was a counsel to the Senate Rules Committee. The two have been accused by their Democratic colleagues of having a hands-off attitude towards campaign finance law and by watchdog groups for failing to enforce election laws. McGahn has said that the law has changed considerably since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision.

In a break with historical precedents, the three Democratic commissioners will not be attending in Tampa, and the Republican officials may take a pass on Charlotte, McGahn said. In 2008, at least some of the commissioners attended their opposing party’s convention.

Is that a sign of the increased partisan polarization at the FEC, where Republican and Democratic commissioners have deadlocked so frequently that one election lawyer has called the agency “as good as dead?”

McGahn, an electric guitarist, shrugged off that suggestion, saying that if he skips the Charlotte convention, it will be because he has a young son. He and Petersen may still decide to drive down to Charlotte next week, he added.

Although the conservative McGahn would like to see the public funding of presidential campaigns ended, he did not offer an opinion as to whether taxpayers should be footing the bill for the nominating conventions. “It’s not really up to me,” he said.

He is more worried about the TV networks devoting fewer hours to broadcasting the conventions. McGahn said they should be showing more of the proceedings as a public service. After all, he noted, the networks get their licensing from the Federal Communications Commission.