While many of us spent today watching Obama’s inauguration, few news sources have reported on where the money for the lavish inauguration festivities comes from. Contrary to what it may seem, it is not public money. Rather, inauguration funds are raised by the incoming administration.
Positive Steps towards Transparency
As he did in his presidential campaign, Obama banned corporate and lobbyist funding for his inauguration. He also greatly expanded disclosure of donor information and improved transparency of what has often been in the past a closed, unregulated process. He also set voluntary limits of $50,000 for individual contributions and $300,000 for bundled contributions.
However, while Obama’s disclosure deserves praise, it does not mask the fact that the inauguration was paid for largely by wealthy donors hoping for a final chance to buy influence with the new administration.
Despite Transparency, Inauguration Still Paid for by a Handful of Wealthy Donors
The group Public Citizen reports that 80% of Obama’s total inauguration contributions ($35.3 million) came from just 211 individual “bundlers.” “Bundlers” are well-connected fundraisers–often corporate executives, lawyers, or other individuals with position of power–who collect contributions from individuals and deliver them to the inaugural committee. Of the 5,632 reported contributions to the inaugural committee, only 113 were “small” contributions of $200.
Among those donating were prominent Wall Street executives:
- Louis Susman, vice chairman of Citigroup Corporate and Investment Banking and managing director, vice chairman of investment banking, Citigroup ($300,000)
- Mark Gilbert, senior executive, Lehman Brothers ($185,000)
- Robert Wolf, chairman and CEO, UBS Americas ($100,000)
- Jennifer Scully, vice president, private wealth management, Goldman Sachs ($100,000)
- Bruce Heyman, managing director of the Private Wealth Management Group, Midwest region, Goldman Sachs ($50,000)
- Kobi Brinson, senior vice president and assistant general counsel, Wachovia ($35,000)
Inaugural Donations Bring Increased Access
Public Citizen president Joan Claybrook stated in a news release, “The inauguration is the last chance for big donors to throw money at the feet of the president.” As shown above, wealthy donors are taking this seriously, and in many ways, Obama is accommodating their desires.
While Obama has said that inauguration donors will not have undue influence, the money donated to the inauguration does buy increased access. Yesterday, USA Today reported that:
“Contributors who gave at least $10,000 to help underwrite the inauguration received two tickets to witness the Democrat take the oath of office, watch the Inaugural Parade and party at one of the 10 black-tie balls attended by Obama and his wife, Michelle. Those who gave $50,000 — or raised $300,000 from other contributors — received a total of four tickets to official inaugural activities.
Donors also were invited to private gatherings, such as a Sunday “welcome brunch” with an entertainment lineup that included singer Carole King and a Sunday evening reception organized by Penny Pritzker, a Chicago hotel executive who was Obama’s top campaign fundraiser. Today, donors can attend a breakfast briefing with policymakers, including Tom Daschle, Obama’s pick to run the Health and Human Services Department.”
In the article, Public Citizen research Alexander Cohen called the donor benefits “unseemly.”
In response, an Obama spokeswoman said donors will not have undue sway: “”The president-elect made it clear throughout his campaign that the people who have power in his campaign are the grass-roots.”