White House

The selling of an inauguration: Prices run from $5 to $1 million

Memorabilia, such as coffee mugs and glasses, is for sale a few days before the U.S. presidential inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Memorabilia, such as coffee mugs and glasses, is for sale a few days before the U.S. presidential inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Abaca Press/MCT

For $100,000, donors will receive a package of tickets that include a candlelight reception at the posh National Building Museum.

For $250,000, there’s a star-studded children’s concert.

And for $1 million, there are reserved seats for a parade.

The gift list at Neiman Marcus? Hardly. It’s the price list for some of the star-studded events of the 57th inauguration celebration, five days of brunches and balls, concerts and receptions that will kick off Thursday.

It’s all built around the inauguration of President Barack Obama for a second term next Monday.

The taxpayers will pick up the tab – as they do every four years – for the official swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the Capitol, a luncheon with Congress and extra security.

The rest comes from contributions. Obama supporters – individuals and corporations – are helping to raise the millions of dollars, sometimes in ways that alarm government-watchdog groups.

It’s not all for and by the wealthy. Donations are being supplemented by sales of souvenirs: $5 buttons, $150 cufflinks. But they also include $7,500 medallion sets featuring the likenesses of Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. And the nearly 1,000 donors identified so far include well-connected companies and individuals who’ve done business with the Obama administration, attended White House functions or backed the president in his re-election bid last year, according to an incomplete list of contributors released by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Donors include Centene Corp., a health care company that will benefit from the Affordable Care Act; Financial Innovations, a company that sold promotional merchandise to the campaign; and Irwin Jacobs, a founder of tech giant Qualcomm, who gave millions of dollars to an independent group that supported Obama last year .

“The American people have a right to expect something other than an inauguration brought to them by AT&T,” said Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, which had called on Obama to refuse corporate funding for the inauguration. “Every corporation’s donations create a conflict of interest, because they all have business before the government in one way or the other.”

The Presidential Inaugural Committee spent $53 million for the 2009 festivities, when a record 1.8 million people filled the National Mall to see the nation’s first black president take the oath of office. Fewer than half that are expected for a scaled-down celebration this year, which will bring down the cost, though organizers have released no estimate.

Four years ago, Obama refused to take money from corporations and he limited contributions to $50,000, pledging to change business as usual in Washington.

This year, he scrapped the limits on companies and dollars, though he still is declining money from lobbyists, political action committees, foreign corporations and entities that benefited from government bailouts. There also won’t be any sponsorships, so don’t expect to see signs for the AT&T parade or Microsoft brunch.

Donations of $10,000 to $1 million are being rewarded with packages named after the founding fathers – Madison, Jefferson, Adams and Washington – that include access to exclusive events, some with the president and first lady Michelle Obama. The $1 million package surpasses individual contributions collected by former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who raised $30 million to $42 million for each of their inaugurations.

“Our goal is to make sure that we will meet the fundraising requirements for this civic event after the most expensive presidential campaign in history,” according to a statement from the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

That still disappointed government-watchdog groups, some of which had lobbied Obama to refuse corporate donations. They accused him of abandoning his effort to curb the role of money in politics after little success in his first four years.

The committee’s decision to accept all donations came after an election between Obama and Republican Mitt Romney in which a record $2 billion was collected, more than half from outside groups funded in part by millionaires and billionaires, organizations that Obama had once strongly opposed.

“It has always been more appearance than reality,” said Robert Kelner, the chairman of Covington and Burling’s Election and Political Law group, which represents the Republican Party, among other clients. “They realize the idealism didn’t work well and are adjusting to financial reality.”

In 2009, Obama disclosed names, employers and states of residence for each donor, along with the amounts of contribution. This year, he’s releasing the names with no further identifying information.

So far, the committee has released two batches totaling just 992 names of people who’d donated more than $200, though the list is probably much larger. Four years ago, nearly 21,000 donations were made. A third list of names is expected to be released this week.

Committee officials declined to say why the policy had changed, even while its website continues to tout the group’s “commitment to transparency.”

“It’s mysterious to me,” said Kathy Kiely, the managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government. “I just think for a president that really made it an issue – boasted about his transparency – for him to walk back, it’s a puzzling signal.”

A final list of donors won’t be available until three months after the inauguration, when the committee is required to report them to the Federal Election Commission. The committee isn’t required, however, to report how the money was spent, said Paul S. Ryan, senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a public-interest law firm in Washington..

Officials at the Sunlight Foundation suspect that Obama may be raising more money than is needed for the inauguration. Leftovers can be used for a variety of other purposes, including to fund Obama’s presidential library, which will house his papers after he leaves the White House. The cost could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

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