By J.H. Snider, president, iSolon.org, and fellow, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University
Pork, as in pork barrel politics, is defined here as providing concentrated government benefits to particular individuals or organizations to secure their political support. Like monetary pork, any particular instance of in-kind pork may be easy to defend. What is democratically harmful is the overall pattern of pork when it privileges campaign supporters and special interest groups at the expense of the general public.
Although in-kind pork is not a major source of democratic corruption, it is nevertheless a contributing factor. Day-to-day examples of in-kind pork for the politically favored include cutting long lines to get into high profile Congressional hearings, and free access (for lobbyists and think tanks) to Capitol Hill conference rooms. Sometimes, as when the Clinton Administration made the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom available to prominent campaign supporters, in-kind pork receives front page newspaper coverage. But most such pork, including presidential inaugural pork, remains under the public radar.
Presidential inaugural pork
The government has allowed the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee to allocate three types of tickets: the swearing-in (free tickets), the parade ($25/ticket), and the ball ($60/ticket). Two of the events, the swearing-in and parade, take place on public grounds. The third, the ball, takes place at the quasi-private D.C. Convention Center. Partially due to the high cost of security, all three cost the government far more to produce than it receives, and all three have far greater ticket demand than supply. If prices reflected either actual costs or market demand, they would be prohibitively expensive for the average citizen.
The appeal of attending inaugural events varies, including being near the powerful and famous, attending a historic event, and, at the swearing-in and ball, listening live to famous musicians. Given the crushing demand for inaugural tickets, it’s clear that Americans consider them a great bargain.
Inaugural ticket PR
Reflecting smart politics, both the presidential and congressional PR associated with the ticket allocation suggests an allocation system based on democratic values. This PR includes a relatively modest ticket price plus allocation based on a lottery or first-come, first-served. None of the publicity indicates the degree to which tickets are given to either congressional or presidential supporters.
On the other hand, some information is arguably better than none. Many websites for individual members of Congress provide no explanation for how they allocate inaugural tickets.
The publicly announced system for allocating the tickets is both opaque and complex. The Presidential Inaugurating Committee is nominally responsible for direct allocation of the parade and ball tickets, with individual members of Congress given corresponding responsibility for the swearing-in tickets.
But this obfuscates a much more complex reality. The Presidential Inaugural Committee has a separate public lottery to allocate tickets for those who promise to participate in public service on January 19; the Committee provides tickets to major campaign and inaugural supporters; both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have public ticket lotteries for supporters; and at least one congressional office has a website form indicating it allocates all types of inaugural tickets.
The New York Times reports that $7,500 will get you the “Monroe Package,” including two tickets to all three inaugural events. Politico reports that $1 million gets corporations that and a lot more, including, as the Washington Post reports, the ability to hand out scarce inaugural tickets to the Federal employees who regulate them.
The Ticketmaster fiasco
It sometimes seems that every official responsible for allocating his or her portion of the tickets has a different account of what’s going on. The Presidential Inaugural Committee is a vivid example.
On Sunday, January 6 at 3:39 pm, I received an email from the Committee stating that I would receive an email tomorrow, on Monday, at an unspecified time, that would provide me a link to order parade and ball tickets, which would be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Instead, I received the email with the link at 7:26 pm, less than four hours later.
Within a half hour of receiving it, I was trying to order tickets from Ticketmaster, the vendor used to fulfill the tickets. However, the Ticketmaster link wouldn’t work, providing an error message that the web server was overwhelmed or otherwise down. After I spent a half hour endlessly hitting the Ticketmaster link button, I finally got through, only to be told that all tickets were already sold out. (Some have speculated that Ticketmaster gave insiders advance notice of the first-come, first-served sale.)
Then, at 12:14 am the same evening, Ticketmaster sent me an apology that the previous email was mistakenly sent out and that, although most tickets had already been allocated, I would receive another email with information about the remaining tickets.
Then, on Friday, January 11, five days later and with no mention of the earlier emails, The Presidential Inaugural Committee sent me an email saying I could enter a lottery to receive tickets to all inaugural events if I agreed to sign up for public service on January 19.
Congress versus the president
Each of these four emails was inconsistent with an earlier email, and none mentioned the various schemes to allocate tickets to insiders. But compared to some congressional offices, the Presidential Inaugural Committee may be allocating tickets with exemplary competence, transparency, and integrity.
The Washington Post reports that Congressional leadership has refused to disclose the number of tickets it is allocating to House and Senate offices. Based on a sample of the three congressional offices that represent me (two Senate and one House), each office seems to have its own method of allocating tickets, which may change from day to day without public notice. As of 4:15 pm on January 14, the staffers who answered the phones from all three offices pleaded ignorance to the number of tickets their office has and will give out to both insiders and the general public.
Given that the demand for all types of inaugural tickets vastly exceeds supply, members of Congress and the president have strong incentives to use them as a perk to reward supporters, a practice that clearly embarrasses them. To reduce such incentives, more ticket transparency is needed.
Both members of Congress and the President should be subject to the same sweepstake disclosure laws as private companies. This includes disclosing how many prizes (in this case, tickets) will be awarded. Specifically, Congress should pass legislation creating a public inauguration ticket budget with corresponding procedures to account for how that budget is spent. The budget should include the number of tickets allocated to each public official, and a statement from each as to the basis on which he will allocate them. As a check & balance on ticket fraud, a third party ticket agency should be used to allocate the actual tickets in accordance with publicly announced instructions. Here the White House’s use of a third party such as Ticketmaster should be applauded, despite Ticketmaster’s apparent technical incompetence. Letting unchecked congressional staff conduct hidden lotteries and other claimed democratic allocation procedures is a system ripe for abuse.
More generally, more transparency regarding in-kind pork is needed. Where feasible, each major category of in-kind pork should have its own public budget and be allocated according to law. Exposing and fixing presidential inaugural ticket pork would be a good place to start.
Snider is the president of iSolon.org and a fellow at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.