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Pay-To-Play: Inauguration Tickets, Only $12,500 Each!

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Want a ticket to the official Inauguration Day swearing-in event held on public property? Well, you can easily have one -- guaranteed -- for the low, low price of only $12,500. [To be completely honest, that price is much like how airlines advertise "one-way based on roundtrip purchase" fares that don't actually exist -- since you have to "donate" a whopping $50,000 for four guaranteed tickets.] But wait! It's a package deal! You also get, for your hard-earned dollars, bleacher seats to watch the Inaugural Parade, tickets to at least one of the Inaugural Balls the Obamas will actually attend, and other sundry perks and goodies. What a deal, eh?

At least the official Presidential Inauguration Committee (PIC) is being transparent about this. They not only openly advertised this package deal, but they also have posted the list of big donors on their web site for all to see. You can check it out to see exactly who has ponied up the fifty large so far. Hollywood celebrities such as Halle Berry, Steven Spielberg, and Tom Hanks have paid up, as well as too many corporate CEOs to list here (from companies such as Google, Microsoft, Levi Strauss, Qualcomm, ExxonMobil, Sony BMG, Coca Cola, and others). Almost 400 folks have already bought the premium package as of this writing. The San Jose Mercury News recently ran a story of the most prominent San Francisco Bay Area donors, just to highlight a few examples.

But that may not be the full extent of the pay-to-play requirement to score an official swearing-in ceremony ticket. The bulk of the 250,000 tickets are given to every member of Congress to dole out as they see fit. That "as they see fit" is no exaggeration, because there are absolutely no rules or regulations about who they can give tickets to. Any senator or representative can hand out the limited number of tickets to his or her biggest donors, and not only is it completely legal and ethical to do so, nobody will ever know. Because since the tickets have a face value of $0.00, it is not a "gift" in any monetary sense, and will never be reported as such. Every congressman is handed a sheaf of tickets, with no rule dictating public disclosure of where they went.

Faced with the problem of how to divvy up their tickets, some in Congress have done what they considered the fair thing -- by handing the tickets out to the first people who requested them, or holding a lottery so the tickets would be randomly distributed among those who asked for them -- but others have not. Some (including my own House member -- a staunchly liberal Democrat in a safe seat) refused to even respond to a media request asking how their tickets would be distributed. There's no law that says they have to tell, so why bother?

Which is within ethical and legal limits, because there simply are no rules. They are free to hand out every ticket to their big donors, or hand out as many as they feel like to big donors and then magnanimously distribute the others to members of the public who haven't paid to play. Since there is no disclosure requirement, they are even free to lie about it and say they gave them all away in a lottery, while doing no such thing.

In other words, politics as usual.

This wouldn't be all that outrageous in the pay-to-play world of Washington, D.C., if it weren't for the intrepid Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Presidential Inauguration Committee. Now, Feinstein must be getting a little dizzy from her whirligig position reversals just in the past week alone (see: seating Roland Burris, the Leon Panetta choice for CIA director), but this one is a doozy. Because late last year, in a fit of indignation, Feinstein tried to push through a federal law making it illegal -- and punishable by both jail time and huge fines -- for any member of the public to sell any inauguration ticket to anyone, for any price. So Andy Rooney (who said, on 60 Minutes last week: "I know there are a limited number of inaugural tickets, but I'm hoping mine's in the mail. If it comes maybe I'll sell it to someone who really wants to go.") would get thrown in jail for a year and have to pay a $100,000 fine if he actually did so.

But sponsoring this law didn't stop Feinstein's PIC from openly soliciting the $50,000 "donor" package. Maybe Feinstein is afraid of the free market, where these tickets would obviously sell for less than the $12,500 they're charging. Who knows, at this point, with DiFi. And one of the most recent press releases from the PIC touts their "store" where they are selling "official" Obama knickknacks, meaning the PIC themselves are obviously not above turning a quick buck on the whole affair.

So, a quick review: Private citizens selling tickets, bad. PIC selling official beer steins and coloring books for the kids, good. PIC selling tickets for $12,500 each, doubleplusgood.

Adding insult to injury, tickets will not just be guaranteed for wealthy donors, but also for every Democratic officeholder in the land -- including Rod Blagojevich. That's right, the Illinois governor got two tickets to the festivities, as the Huffington Post recently reported. So no matter how much of an embarrassment to the party Blagojevich is, he'll have the option of attending.

Perhaps I'm not being entirely fair here. I should state that some parts of the inaugural festivities are private parties, put on by private entities. So, legally, who pays the piper calls the tune. Meaning they can invite (and, by definition, exclude) anyone they wish. Private money is being raised for the whole Inauguration Week gala, and the people who plunk down more money than the average new car costs should be given the privilege of attending the events their money has paid for. I understand all of that, and really don't have a problem with it. What I do have a problem with, however, is that the swearing-in event is not a private event. It is a public event, where the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court swears in President Obama on the steps of the Capitol, overlooking the National Mall -- both of which are owned and paid for by "The People." And while Dianne Feinstein and the PIC are nominally in control of how the tickets are distributed, I don't think anyone could argue that if Obama had publicly called for a better way to equitably distribute the tickets for such, it would have happened.

Thinking up a better way to hand out the tickets takes about four seconds. You can even start by putting aside ten or twenty thousand tickets for Democratic officeholders -- I can live with that. But then for the other 200,000-plus tickets remaining, hold a national lottery open to all who plan on attending. Give everyone an equal chance, and make everything transparent in the sunshine of public disclosure. If Obama had stood up and called for such -- relying heavily on the "this isn't about me, it's about you" and "change is coming to Washington" rhetoric -- I have no doubt the PIC would have done exactly what he asked them to do.

Instead, Obama's transition team trotted out a token effort. Anyone who donates anything (even five bucks) to the PIC was put into a pool (you have until midnight tomorrow to enter), and ten winners are being chosen to receive the full ticket package. Ten.

To sum up: $50,000 donors get four tickets each, no matter how many of them plunk their money down. Seemingly all Democratic officeholders get tickets, just for being Democrats. Congress gets all the rest, and can hand them out like candy, with no fear of public disclosure. And ten lucky people open their Wonka bars and get a golden ticket of their own.

This doesn't sound a whole lot like "change we can believe in." This sounds more like same-old-same-old cronyism and pay-to-play. Which does not bode well for answering the essential question of Barack Obama -- will he manage to change Washington, or will Washington end up changing him?

[Full disclosure: If this sounds like I'm seriously annoyed that I didn't get an inaugural ticket, well... I guess I'm guilty as charged. I'll be watching from the Mall with the rest of the not-so-well-connected public. Hey, at least out on the Mall you can bring a backpack, a thermos, a cooler, a stroller, or an umbrella... and there will be vendors selling hot things to eat and drink. Inside the ticketed area, none of these will be allowed.]

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com