With slightly less than a month and a half to go before Barack Obama's inauguration, Washington, D.C. has officially reached the "freakout" point on the Richter scale of event planning. This may indeed turn out to be justified, if the predicted crowd shows up. Even so, some of what is quietly happening in background of the planning process is worth drawing attention to.
The estimated crowd size for the event varies (depending on who you ask), from a low of one million people to a high of four or five million people. That would be seven or eight times as many people actually live in Washington, it's worth pointing out. George Bush pulled a crowd of around 300,000 the last time around, but the record Obama will likely beat is Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 (one year after Kennedy was assassinated) who saw from 1.2 million to 1.7 million on the District's streets (estimates vary). Such numbers began overwhelming D.C. shortly after Obama won the election (as this hilarious Toles cartoon from 11/13/08 shows). Upon reflection, though, the District got caught up in a "boomtown" mentality -- which is only going to get more frenzied as the event draws nearer.
Of special note in the thick of this lunacy is Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies (JCCIC), who is leading the charge against the prospect that D.C. could turn in to some sort of freezing-cold Mardi Gras. Two out of the following three "Inauguration News" items involve Senator DiFi's recent actions. In keeping with her "tablets handed down on the mountaintop" theme, I hereby present these as "Inauguration Commandments."
Thou Shalt Not Sell Thy Inaugural Ticket
There will be 250,000 "official" tickets to the swearing-in ceremony. That sounds like a lot of tickets, doesn't it? But when you consider how they are distributed, it's really not that many. These tickets are given to individual Congressmen to distribute among their constituents. And there are 535 members of Congress. Meaning, if the tickets are distributed equitably, each will get around 467 tickets to hand out. But that last sentence contains certain assumptions, which at this point cannot be verified one way or the other. Will some members of Congress get more tickets than others? Will "special request" tickets from other high-ranking muckety-mucks be "taken off the top" of that total? Nobody knows, since the tickets won't be handed out until one week before the actual Inauguration.
And even after they are handed out, there are (to the best of my knowledge) no rules whatsoever about how those tickets are to be distributed. Each Representative and each Senator will hand the tickets out as they see fit, in other words. Now, some have publicly announced they are handing them out first-come, first-served. Others have announced they will be holding a lottery in which everyone who asks for a ticket has an equal chance of getting one. But there seems to be nothing at all stopping any Congressman from giving all their tickets to wealthy campaign donors. Or other cronies and favorites. These tickets (in non-Obama years) are seen as something of a political perk, to be handed out like candy.
But this time around, the interest in the tickets has been, to put it mildly, overwhelming. Most Congressfolk have been so snowed under that they have stopped even taking requests at this point -- even from far-flung (and red state) districts.
So instead of stepping in to make the entire process more transparent and accountable, Senator Dianne Feinstein is stepping in to make any sale of any inaugural ticket illegal -- punishable by up to a $100,000 fine and/or one year in jail. Seriously, that's her answer to the problem of too few tickets: ban capitalism. Guarantee that tickets only go to favorites and donors, without even the chance for an average citizen to buy a ticket on the free and open market.
I wish I were making this up, but I'm not.
Now, in DiFi's defense, the legislation she introduced was originally meant to stop nefarious scammers in their tracks. She just went a bit too far, that's all. Almost immediately after Obama was elected, "inaugural tickets" started appearing on sites such as eBay, for prices up to $40,000 each. Every single one of these was fake, since the tickets won't even be handed out until January. So it made sense to pass a law making such fraud specifically illegal, with harsh penalties for doing so. DiFi even strong-armed eBay and other internet auction sites to ban any sales of inauguration tickets, valid or not. That went a bit too far, but where she really overreached was in trying to ban all sales of even valid tickets. From her bill:
It shall be unlawful for any person to... knowingly and intentionally sell, facilitate the sale of, or transfer for money or property, or attempt to sell, facilitate the sale of, or transfer for money or property, a ticket to a Presidential inaugural ceremony.
In a struggling economy, it seems that sales of such a valuable commodity might give a tiny boost to help out, but if this bill passes, it will become seriously illegal instead. The bill hasn't even cleared committee yet, but look for swift action on it one way or another soon, considering the short timetable they have to work with. For those interested in keeping an eye on this issue, the bill is S.3685, and its progress can be tracked via the Library of Congress' THOMAS site. The bill currently has three co-sponsors, Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Olympia Snowe (R-ME).
Here's a direct quote from Feinstein on her bill:
The Inauguration of the President is one of the most important rituals of our democracy. The chance to witness this event should not be bought and sold like tickets to a football game. This legislation is meant to immediately stop the unscrupulous behavior of those who obtain these tickets for free and then seek to profit by selling them, often at dramatically inflated prices."
Well, um, maybe... if our democracy itself weren't for sale to the highest bidder by one of the most important rituals of our democracy -- raising bucketfuls of campaign cash, and then getting rewarded with political perks like inaugural tickets or access. If DiFi had been pushing to stop such unscrupulous behavior of those who obtain such access in order to profit by it, often at dramatically inflated prices, then I might be more inclined to believe her. Or if she were pushing legislation that banned any Congressman from handing out a ticket to anyone who had ever donated any money to them.
Which, pointedly, she's not. When she does, she'll have an ounce of credibility on the subject.
Thou (Shalt/Shalt Not) Party Late
The District of Columbia's local government has a strange and often adversarial relationship with Congress. Officially, Congress is in charge of everything in the District, since it is a federal district and not part of any U.S. state. Congress gets pretty much full veto over anything that happens in D.C., and they control D.C.'s budget. But that doesn't stop the city government from doing what it feels like at times, or letting its displeasure be known (see: "Taxation Without Representation" D.C. license plates, for instance).
The current Mayor of D.C. and the D.C. Council just passed a law to facilitate the non-stop party during Inauguration Week. Specifically, they passed a law extending the drinking hours in D.C. for that week.
Minnesota may be to blame. Minneapolis/St. Paul extended their drinking hours for the Republican National Convention earlier this year, after all.
And the District's drinking hours are flexible to begin with. On weeknights, 2:00 A.M. is closing time. Fridays and Saturdays (technically Saturday and Sunday mornings) it moves to 3:00 A.M., and on New Year's Day it is pushed back until 4:00 A.M. And just last week, the city passed a law changing it to 5:00 A.M. for Inaugural Week.
Dianne Feinstein is not amused. She fired off a letter to the city government, signed by fellow Senator Bob Bennett. The Washington Post had several snarky things to say about both of them in response.
The Los Angeles Times quotes someone with a different point of view, however:
Ellen Proxmire, who co-chaired President Kennedy's inauguration, says people may reconsider making the trek to Washington when they realize hotels are sold out. Or, she said, "if people don't have a place to stay, they'll probably stay in the bars all night. It'll be warm."
Not if Dianne Feinstein has her way, though. More on this story as it develops. And speaking of the housing problem....
Thou Shalt Cash In On Thy Spare Bedroom
Some residents of the Washington area are proving that capitalism will indeed be alive and well during the inauguration period. Rentals are going on the market for Inauguration Week for up to $10,000 to $40,000. Anyone with any spare horizontal space under a roof is currently seeing dollar signs in front of their eyes. Fred Thompson has reportedly put his one-bedroom condo up for $30,000. It's a gold rush, in other words.
Salon has the story, which is well worth reading just for the details. D.C.'s mayor is again doing his part by suspended all housing rules on rentals for the week, in order to facilitate the free-for-all. No word yet on whether Senator Feinstein is going to make sleeping on a friend's couch illegal as well. Ahem.
From the end of the Salon article, an interesting point about how the inaugural planners are almost warning people to stay away:
Lately, officials have started to sound like they don't even want people to show up. In their guidance for the public, inauguration planners in Congress (which technically runs the ceremony) make coming to the swearing-in sound about as appealing as getting an IRS audit. "Movement will be difficult inside the security perimeter," the guidelines say. "It is typically cold on Inauguration Day -- normally 37° F -- and often wet. Expect to be outside for more than three hours, to stand in line, and to walk for long periods of time." There won't be food for sale, but anyone who comes won't be allowed to bring anything beyond "a small snack." As for bringing the kids to see a moment in history, maybe that's not such a great idea: The cops won't let strollers in. "Extra consideration should be taken when planning to bring infants, young children, the elderly, or anyone with a weakened immune system," Congress says. "A vast majority of attendees will be in standing room sections and should be prepared to be on their feet for several hours."
Maybe that's the solution to all the logistical concerns -- spend the next month scaring would-be visitors into staying home. As the saying goes, it's so crazy it just might work. Sort of like everything else about the inauguration planning so far.
[Program Note: This column normally appears on Wednesdays, but in solidarity with the "Call in 'gay' day" protest yesterday, I called in "straight" and refused to work. Plus, I was busy. Ahem. Anyway, our normal schedule will resume next week.]
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com