Sen. Tom Coburn on Thursday urged both national parties to voluntarily return millions of taxpayer dollars they received to fund their nominating conventions, saying Democrats and the GOP should show leadership in reducing the federal deficit.
The Democratic and Republican national committees each have pocketed $18.2 million from the U.S. Treasury to help defray the cost of the Democrats' three-day gathering in Charlotte, N.C., and the GOP's four-day convention in Tampa, Fla., where they'll officially nominate their presidential candidates.
Mr. Coburn said giving back the taxpayer money would show voters that both parties are serious about fixing the country's financial woes.
"No one disputes that you are legally allowed to use these funds, but some may question whether using them this way is best for the country," the Oklahoma Republican wrote in a letter sent Thursday to the DNC and RNC. "To demonstrate that both of our parties are committed to fiscal discipline, it would be a great act of statesmanship to return these funds."
Neither party responded to requests for comment.
The public financing system works by giving taxpayers the option of sending $3 of their payment to the Presidential Election Campaign Fund when filing their taxes. The money is then distributed to candidates who promise to limit their private fundraising, and to each of the parties for their conventions.
According to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office last year, the fund collects about $42 million each year and held $195 million at the end of 2010.
Still, Mr. Coburn said that by using federal dollars on "weeklong parties," the DNC and RNC will send the wrong signal to Americans, especially in the wake of a recent scandal over lavish conferences held by the General Services Administration.
"At a time when confidence in Washington has dropped to all time lows and the federal debt is growing by more than $1 trillion a year, we need more than election year rhetoric and political posturing," he wrote. "Taxpayers expect leadership demonstrated by action."
An effort to cut off all public campaign funds last year stalled in Congress.
The parties collected $29.8 million from the public fund for their 2008 conventions, using the money to pay for things such as housing convention staff, renting space at hotels and speech coaching.
Advocates of public financing say that wouldn't be a problem if the parties didn't also raise millions of private funds. Not bound to any private fundraising limits, corporate host committees for the DNC and RNC each spent about $60 million.
"It's hard to justify going in and using public monies when the whole unpinning of that system has been destroyed," said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. "The parties are basically having their cake and eating it too. It's hard to justify."
Public campaign financing has become a touchy subject in Washington, as Democrats want to revise the out-of-date system while Republicans try to do away with it altogether.
In place since 1974, the system is becoming less popular among presidential candidates, who are finding they can instead raise more on their own. George W. Bush opted out of public financing for his 2004 re-election bid and President Obama didn't use the system for either his primary race or the general election in 2008.
House Republicans passed bills twice last year to do away with public financing - and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has introduced similar legislation in the Senate - but their efforts stalled in the face of Democratic resistance.
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