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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Limiting Inaugural Donations Won't Get Our Country Back

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The cost of this year's presidential inauguration is predicted to be around $41 million. As Nick Anderson reports in The Los Angeles Times, a group of the country's biggest corporations and wealthiest individuals is picking up the tab.

At least 54 of the major donors released by the inaugural committee contributed $250,000, the maximum amount being accepted this year. Unsurprisingly, most of these donors are corporations or individuals with a stake in legislation on this year's presidential and legislative agenda. But is there anything wrong with these wealthy interests footing the bill for our country's inaugural festivities?

The short answer is yes; the long answer is yes, but we've got much bigger problems to worry about than the funding of inaugural committees.

While a donation to an inaugural committee may not be perceived as important as one to a candidate or political action committee, conventional wisdom suggests that it does do some good on the DC power scene. "There's some recognition that you do get, to be seen in a positive light inside the Beltway," said a V.P. from Occidental Petroleum (which gave $250,000 to the inaugural committee).

While this "positive light" (which I imagine has a glow the color of Emerald City) may give wealthy interests an advantage over the rest of us when it comes to Washington's willingness to listen to our concerns, our system of financing the campaigns which send people to Washington in the first place is a far bigger problem. The 2004 presidential primary alone saw more than $200,000,000 in contributions for the maximum allowed $2,000. When you add in donations of $1,000 or more, that number jumps to $300,000,000, half of the total amount received.

The federal laws which set contribution limits at a level which very few of us ever need to worry about allowed a tiny fraction of our country to dominate the discussion about who was to be our next president. As the same high limits apply to congressional races, the same tiny fraction of people dominated the selection of who represents us in Congress as well.

I don't know too many businessfolks who throw around $250,000 without some expectation of a payoff, which in this case is probably a comfy seat at the right table. However, if we Americans come together to restore some sanity and fairness to our system of financing political campaigns, the person sitting at the table when the six-zero crowd shows up just might be someone who truly represents the rest of us.

And if that's the case, let the corporations and fatcats empty their wallets into an inaugural committee's accounts. (Although my guess is that they would find a different investment.)

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