WASHINGTON—For well over 100 years party conventions provided political theater at its best, capturing the nation’s attention and playing a pivotal role in deciding who would be the next president. In 1880, Republican James A. Garfield beat former president Ulysses S. Grant on the 35th ballot even though he wasn’t running when the convention began.
Times have changed. Last year WORLD documented how political party conventions have turned into carefully scripted festivals of extravagance that are partially funded by taxpayers.
This week the U.S. House of Representatives voted to do something about it. Lawmakers on Wednesday approved with a 295-102 bipartisan vote the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act. The law would strip federal dollars, which totaled $36 million in 2012, from party conventions and redirect them to pediatric research.
Efforts to defund party conventions have been ongoing for years, but using the money to fund pediatric research is a new idea. Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., authored the bill, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.—who has taken steps to soften the party’s image—helped champion the legislation.
“We’ve been on this for a long time,” Harper told me. “We’re getting rid of taxpayer-funded political conventions to do something that really shows where our priorities are.”
A variety of advocacy groups endorsed the bill, including the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, National Association for Down Syndrome, and the National Fragile X Foundation.
Harper’s adult son, Livingston, has Fragile X Syndrome and was in the House gallery when the vote took place. “It was really special to have him there,” Harper said.
The bill redirects convention funds to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for research over the next 10 years. After a decade, the funds could be directed elsewhere such as deficit reduction.
“You can truly measure the decency of society by the priorities of its people,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who also wants to eliminate public funding for presidential candidates. “I can speak firsthand to the fact that major parties are more than capable of funding their own national conventions.”
Some Democrats opposed the bill because it didn’t do more to restore lost funding to NIH. Harper praised Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., one of 72 Democrats to vote in favor of the bill, for drumming up support among the minority party.
In the Senate, Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Mark Udall, D-Colo., earlier this year filed a bill to eliminate convention funding, but it hasn’t reached the floor for a vote. Harper didn’t have any predictions on what the Senate will do with his legislation, but he said they should vote on it soon: “I urge the Senate to act swiftly and advance this important legislation to the president’s desk so that our nation’s children can experience the full benefits of promising clinical trials and medical advancements.”