Later this month, throngs of Republicans will descend upon New York City to celebrate .... well, Republicans. The scene will be similar to last month, when thousands of Democrats came to Boston to celebrate Democrats.

After four years of spending taxpayer dollars at rates unseen in U.S. history, after failing to carry out the single most important responsibility of government — to protect American citizens from those who want to harm us — America's two major political organizations now get to throw themselves grand galas, where party leaders bloviate on national television about the earnest, hard-working taxpayer, then party in corporate suites where they nosh on the likes of "maple bourbon glazed turkey and roasted duck, and Forest Glen chardonnay."

And you and I pay for it.

U.S. taxpayers give the Democrats and Republicans $15 million each to host their respective conventions. Taxpayers in host cities and host states pay even more. Those checks to the parties have always been justified under the premise that we're paying for the privilege of democracy; conventions, after all, are where we select the major parties' candidates for the White House.

Except that they aren't. We haven't had a second ballot at a major party convention in half a century. Both parties now pick their respective nominees months before, in a primary system that, incidentally, taxpayers also foot much of the bill for — from running the elections on primary day to public funding for the major candidates' campaigns. The national conventions are little more than a chance for politicians already on the public dole to throw themselves a huge party, pat themselves on the back for all the great work they've done, live it up for a week, and get free press from hordes of television cameras, reporters, and now, bloggers.

You would think that given the huge federal deficit, the terrorism threat, and America's general uneasiness since the Sept 11 attacks, our public officials would cool it a bit, and opt for a more serious atmosphere to carry out their nominating conventions — largely formalities anyway.

You'd be wrong.

Both parties chose big, media-saturated East Coast cities to host their shindigs. Which means that in addition to the $15 million each party gets for balloons and caviar, this year they'll get an extra $50 million each to pay for security, all of which, again, will come from U.S. taxpayers.

And don't think it'll be easy to protest these wastes of your tax dollars in person. In Boston, dissenters were relegated to a "protest zone," well out of earshot of conventioneers, in barbed wire-lined boxes that writer Tim Blair dubiously dubbed "freedom cages." The Bush administration now requires "loyalty oaths" from those attending campaign rallies, and people are being arrested for wearing protest T-shirts. In New York, protest organizers are embroiled in a stand-off with the city over being refused permission to congregate in Central Park. They have been relegated to a tract of the West Side Highway.

The sad thing is, conventions are probably the least offensive way the two major parties use public resources to promote themselves, congratulate themselves, and otherwise jigger the system to keep themselves in office.

For example:

— They also gerrymander the borders of congressional districts to ensure huge majorities for one party or the other.

— The recently enacted campaign finance reform law makes it nearly impossible for an upstart to amass the kind of funding necessary to knock off a sitting Congressman.

— Sen. John McCain and others now want to force broadcasters to give major party candidates free airtime for campaigning. Given that it would be impossible for networks to accommodate every political party, it's a safe bet that only Democrats and Republicans would benefit from McCain's mandate.

— The Commission on Presidential Debates is run by the two parties, and sets up taxpayer-funded debates under a rules system that makes it nearly impossible for third-party candidates to ever take the stage.

We need a systemic overhaul of the way we choose and elected our federal officials. That's a tall order, but here's an easy way to get off to a good start: Let's tell both Republicans and Democrats that if they want to throw parties with rock stars, movie stars, Hollywood-produced film montages and elaborate stages and sound systems — all to celebrate candidates they nominated months ago — they ought to do it with their own money.

Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at: www.TheAgitator.com.

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