No free breakfast

July 29, 2004

AMONG THE vivid memories of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin's first Democratic National Convention in 1984 is that his fellow members of the Maryland delegation were so grateful when he treated the group to breakfast. In those days, convention delegates hardly ever got a free meal.

In Boston this week, thanks to the bounty of corporate fat cats who wouldn't mind a little gratitude, so much free food, drink and star-studded entertainment is available not even the most determined delegate can partake of it all.

Mr. Cardin alone has five functions in his honor. Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Elijah E. Cummings are marquee attractions at other parties. The whole Maryland delegation gets a hearty breakfast every morning courtesy of such benefactors as Atlantic Bingo and Brandywine Sand and Gravel.

As reformers celebrate curbs on corporate "soft money" slush funds to the national political parties, new leaks have sprung open allowing otherwise prohibited cash from businesses and lobbyists to finance convention-related activities.

The self-described party of the working man and woman is wallowing this week in a nonstop round of galas, tributes and receptions financed with nearly $40 million in corporate largesse, which is also footing the tab for direct convention costs. The million-dollar-plus private contributions pale only in comparison with the $64 million raised by the Republicans for their convention in New York next month.

Voters witnessing the spectacle may find validity in Ralph Nader's claim that both parties are far too beholden to the corporate interests government is supposed to regulate.

Democrats argue that money spent to entertain and rally the troops before they take on a White House incumbent is an important investment - one they are happy to share with corporate donors so they can save their hard-dollar direct contributions for campaigns. But nobody needs to party that much.

There is cause for Democrats to celebrate that their presidential standard-bearer, John Kerry, has raised a stunning $186 million, with a third coming from new or infrequent donors and as much as $10 million a month flowing in recently over the Internet.

More contributors giving smaller amounts is a healthier way to finance campaigns than relying on a handful of mega-fund-raisers who expect favors in return.

But both parties should join together after the election to close the loopholes that turn their national conventions into shakedowns, and allow special interests to "honor" lawmakers with lavish tributes that would be forbidden any other time.

Not much actually comes free in politics. Not even breakfast.

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