A tropical storm named Isaac may accomplish what watchdog groups, newspaper editorials and ethics laws have not: it put a dent in the over-the-top entertaining and partying by lobbyists and special interests trying to buy access and influence with key members of congress at the political conventions.
The potential for fierce wind and rain threatened to shut down a number of lavish outdoor events, including a golf tournament whose influential guests were scheduled to include House Speaker John Boehner, a nighttime performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a series of Senate fundraisers on a yacht called the Starship II.
Top party insiders had been scheduled to converge on Tampa for the Republican National Convention today, and SuperPACs and advocacy groups were provided the keys to many of the week's most exclusive gatherings – allowing the wealthiest donors special access to the party's top political leaders.
But the impending storm appeared to blunt some plans. Turnout at the early receptions Saturday was light, and the delayed start of the convention meant many dignitaries would postpone their arrival.
Still, with the convention set to resume Tuesday, the selling of access – a transaction often carefully shrouded in Washington, DC – looked to still be ready for a full display in Tampa. A group of moderate conservatives called the American Action Network advertised the chance to mingle with members of Congress and senior staff at an arena skybox overlooking the convention floor for $30,000. Full access to the group's intimate luncheons and hot ticket concerts were open to their biggest supporters – those who gave $250,000.
"It's absolutely stunning," said Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity. "I've never seen anything like this, honestly, and I have been watching politics like many of us for decades. Since Watergate I have never seen anything at this level of shameless."
According to Politico, which first reported on the American Action Network's convention plans, the center-right group is planning to spend $10 million to influence House races this year. Dan Conston, a spokesman for American Action Network, called the notion that his group is merely selling access "absurd."
"The sort of events we're organizing are policy panels on retirement security, to hear from the top officials in the country," Conston said. "We're discussing real policy issues. A panel on jobs. A healthcare forum. We'll have some great speeches. And with our concerts, there's also a fun element to the convention."
Several of the party's wealthiest patrons will receive VIP treatment as the endless succession of receptions and cocktail parties keep them entertained.
One conservative group with ties to Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is naming a pavilion on the sidelines of the convention after Dr. Miriam Adelson, wife of the party's single biggest donor this year, Sands Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson – he's given $41 million, and counting. The pavilion will host women-themed discussions.
Many of the groups spending the most money are nonprofits that allow their donors to give money without their names being publicly disclosed. They are permitted to spend money to push for political candidates, as long as the majority of the money they raise also goes towards other purposes, such as advocacy of a particular issue.
Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation told ABC News she believes this type of secrecy warps the political process in favor of the wealthy, and helps foster public cynicism about congress and Washington politics.
"Basically anyone can give anything to anyone and, and be completely anonymous, anonymous about it if they so choose," she said. "So whether it's Convention financing or superPAC financing or issue group financing or even just direct campaign contributions, the public is becoming less and less tolerant. They are tired of seeing politics swing the way of Wall Street, not of Main Street."
The sway of big money will be just as evident in Charlotte next week when Democrats gather for the Democratic National Convention. As ABC News reported earlier this month, organizers sent around a menu to top fundraisers and donors, offering "premier credentials" that access luxury suites and the convention floor to those who donate the most. Someone who could raises $1 million topped the convention host committee's list, while top flight packages were also spelled out for those who donatde $100,000 directly, or raised more than $650,000 (Trustee Package), $500,000 (Piedmont Package), $250,000 (Dogwood Package) and on down.
Unlike Republicans, the organizers in Charlotte have said they are attempting to increase the access and the number of events tailored to the party's rank and file members.
"We've gone further than any convention in history to find ways to provide greater access for the public," said Democratic National Convention Committee spokeswoman Joanne Peters.
Miller, of the Sunlight Foundation, said the conventions used have a fundamental role in the selection of each party's presidential candidate, but that has largely faded. "Now they're really nothing more than … opportunities to be wined and dined by big corporate America," she said.