President Obama has reportedly loosened fundraising restrictions, allowing huge corporate donations to support his 2013 inauguration festivities. Obama placed far stricter limits on corporate donations on 2009's inauguration donations.
The decision prioritizes a lavish celebration over the integrity of the office, and bodes poorly for an administration whose first term can be characterized as slowly turning away from a principled approach to money in politics in favor of political expediency and fundraising.
Despite some clarifications from spokespeople about the fundraising procedures, Obama's announcement raises one serious question after another:
What is Obama thinking? At a time when deficits, taxes, and government programs are being negotiated through secretive two-person dealmaking, how can it possibly be a good idea to fund a huge party with huge corporate donations? If it's that hard to raise $40M for the inauguration, why not change the inauguration, rather than loosening the policy? Is this set of celebrations really so important?
In a way, the inauguration is an expo for the biggest money-in-politics players (to paraphrase my colleague Kathy Kiely). Even if Sheldon Adelson doesn't throw a casino-themed gala in Obama's honor, there's a whole machinery in DC built on brokering wealth and influence, and a good party feeds the scene. Neither defending the celebrations nor priming the check-writers presents a good public interest case for this move.
Will the donations be well disclosed? A spokesperson claims that donations will be posted online regularly, but that's a small consolation. Will we know who is donating, reliably, in real-time, online? Probably not. And what's to stop donors with politically troublesome identities from laundering their donations through each other? Until legislation like the DISCLOSE Act passes, the answer is: nothing.
Isn't conflict everywhere? Press accounts are also describing a conflict of interest policy that will vet donors against potential conflicts of interest, and return troublesome donations, including lobbyists. This is a laughable conflict of interest protection -- if BP's lobbyists can't donate, isn't a donation from BP itself far, far more problematic? Obama's ethics policies continue to rely on vilifying lobbyists while ignoring real influence, like people who leave the White House to direct teams of lobbyists. A conflict of interest policy should actually avoid conflicts of interest; a real conflict of interest policy would refuse $250K donations from corporations.
What's for sale? Even if the donations are online, we don't know what's up for sale. What kind of access does a $200,000 contribution buy? And beyond parade seats and celebratory breakfasts, what else will the administration be giving up? Top administration officials were free to participate in fundraisers where unlimited donations were solicited from dark money c4s in the run-up to the election, and Obama had no disclosure policy or public explanation of how cabinet members were involved. Who will solicit these donations, and how can we be sure their public service is unaffected?
The Obama administration is likely to, again, justify their behavior by saying that they're following the law. Whenever their accountability policies have loopholes or problems, rather than fixing them, the administration asks to be judged in comparison to Bush, saying their record speaks for itself. At some point, though, it's time to judge Obama in his own words. Obama said unlimited donations sully our democracy, threaten public service, and weaken representation -- and has now chosen to embrace them.
Maybe Obama's setting the tone for his second term: we're not worried about whether we look like reformers at all.