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Why are millions still flowing into the presidential inauguration?

Why are millions still flowing into the presidential inauguration?
© Greg Nash

At best, it can be seen as a golden opportunity wasted. At worst, an invitation for special-interest influence peddling.

President-elect Joseph Biden’s presidential inaugural committee (PIC) is working to raise millions of dollars from wealthy individuals and corporations to pay for the Biden-Harris January 20th inaugural ceremony. Thing is, because of the pandemic, almost the entire inaugural ceremony will be mostly virtual, live streaming and Zoom, which costs next to nothing — at least in comparison to traditional in-person galas, glitzy black-tie balls, formal dinners, parades, concerts and shoulder-rubbing soirees between the incoming administration officials, lawmakers, lobbyists and major donors. Almost none of this is happening on Jan. 20.

Nevertheless, the Biden team is accepting donations up to $1 million from corporations and $500,000 from wealthy individuals. To Biden’s credit, they are refusing donations from fossil fuel companies, their executives, PACs and registered lobbyists, but donations from all other industries and government contractors are welcome.

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What an opportunity for Biden to distinguish himself from the excesses and corruption scandals of President TrumpDonald TrumpIran's leader vows 'revenge,' posting an image resembling Trump Former Sanders spokesperson: Biden 'backing away' from 'populist offerings' Justice Dept. to probe sudden departure of US attorney in Atlanta after Trump criticism MORE, who raised a whopping $107 million from wealthy donors and corporations with business pending before the government to pay for Trump’s celebratory party. No one can seem to explain how Trump spent all that money. It remains under criminal investigation to this day, with the investigation focusing on whether much of the money went into the pockets of Trump, his family and close friends.

Inaugural proceedings fall outside the campaign finance laws and are subject only to minimal public scrutiny. Unless an inaugural committee imposes voluntary limits on itself, a PIC may accept unlimited donations from almost any source except foreign nationals. Donors of $200 or more are eventually disclosed to the public 90 days after the inauguration, but how the money was spent remains largely outside public view. There are no guidelines regulating salaries, expenditures or even the disposition of surplus funds.

Inaugural affairs are a haven for corporations and wealthy special interests to throw money at the feet of the incoming administration and to cozy up with the new president and lawmakers at VIP inaugural festivities offered to the biggest donors. Inauguration after inauguration makes it clear who are these big donors: businesses and wealthy individuals who almost always want something in return from the new administration.

Trump’s inaugural donors included at least 63 major government contractors, more than half of which were awarded multimillion-dollar contracts afterward. Major donor AT&T received its long-desired government permission to move ahead with a merger with Time Warner. The coal company Murray Energy won unwavering support from the Trump administration. Private prison companies GEO Group and CoreCivic each gave a quarter million dollars to Trump’s inauguration, and Trump rescinded an Obama-era ban on private prisons for federal incarceration facilities. 

This influence-peddling game is not limited to Trump’s inauguration. Former President Obama banned corporate donations to his first inauguration in 2009, but almost 80 percent of Obama’s inaugural funds came from just 211 wealthy bundlers, the bulk of which came in $50,000 checks, the maximum the PIC would allow. Wall Street investors and hedge fund managers were most prominent among these donors. Prior to that, former President Bush’s 2005 inaugural celebration was almost exclusively (96 percent) financed by registered lobbyists and corporations and their CEOs with business pending before the government, with an average donation over $128,000 each.

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Most major donors to presidential inaugurations don’t care how the money is spent. That is not the point. The point is to gain access and favor with the incoming administration.

All of this could and should be brought to a halt. Legislation has been introduced by Rep. Kurt SchraderWalter (Kurt) Kurt SchraderWhy are millions still flowing into the presidential inauguration? Democrats poised to impeach Trump again Five centrist Democrats oppose Pelosi for Speaker in tight vote MORE (D-Ore.), Sen. Catherine Cortez MastoCatherine Marie Cortez MastoWhy are millions still flowing into the presidential inauguration? Transition of power: Greatness meets infamy Overnight Defense: Pelosi confers with top general on preventing Trump nuclear strike | Biden fills out his national security team MORE (D-Nev.) and others to ban corporate contributions to inaugural committees, cap individual donations, and require full and real-time disclosure of contributions and expenditures by PICs. These reforms have been written into the massive reform package “For the People Act” (H.R. 1) as well.

I long for the days of noble inaugural celebrations — when Thomas Jefferson, for instance, walked from the White House to the Capitol, made his inaugural speech, and walked back home. No big money; no major donors seeking to curry favor.

From what we know of the plans for the Biden-Harris inauguration, it is not going to be a particularly lavish affair. It certainly will not cost the millions of dollars that corporations are already chipping into the pot. The Biden-Harris PIC could still salvage itself from the traditional image of selling favors simply by returning the million-dollar corporate donations. It’s not as if they will be able to spend all that money, anyway.

Craig Holman is currently the Capitol Hill representative for Public Citizen in Washington, D.C. He serves as the organization’s lobbyist on campaign finance and governmental ethics. Previously, Holman was senior policy analyst at the Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law.