Proceed With Caution When Attending Inaugural Events

The rules of who’s legally allowed to go to what can be confusing.

By: Marisa M. Kashino

A presidential inauguration involves lavish parties, designer gowns, huge crowds—and, like nearly everything in Washington, legal and ethical issues. That means lobbyists, corporations, elected officials, and their staffers all need to watch their step in the coming days.

Inaugural balls and other parties will be the hottest invitations in town come the weekend of President Obama’s second inauguration. But government officials need to be cautious about whom they accept tickets from. Members of Congress and their aides, for example, are barred from accepting tickets to inaugural galas and other events from lobbyists or corporations that employ lobbyists—with some confusing exceptions.

For instance—says the chair of Covington & Burling’s election and political law practice, Robert Kelner—members and staffers can accept tickets from sponsors of some “widely attended events” if attending is part of their official duties, at least 25 guests are expected to show up, and attendance is open to people throughout a particular industry, or the attendees are all interested in a given matter. Got all that?

“A lot of people who get invited to an event don’t even think about the [rules],” says Kelner. “Think about whether the particular event is being structured in a way that is rule-friendly.”

Another area where people could run into trouble is donating to the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC), which plans and finances most of the official inaugural events. Corporations and individuals can legally contribute unlimited amounts to the PIC, but during his first inauguration, Obama imposed some restrictions, including instructing the PIC to refuse donations from corporations, federal lobbyists, and political action committees.

This time around, however, Obama has reportedly loosened the rules a bit, lifting his previous ban on corporate giving. However, the PIC will still screen corporate contributors for conflicts of interest. And most important, both individuals and corporations that are registered as federal lobbyists must disclose any contributions to the PIC under the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

Lastly, this will be the first presidential inauguration in history where Super PACs have been in existence, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision on Citizens United. Though some super PACS have talked about hosting inaugural events, Kelner says so far it’s unclear whether any actually will.

But for federal government officials and their employees, attending a party hosted by a super PAC would be cause for caution. Unlike corporations that lobby, super PACs are not required to register as lobbyists—and therefore are not subject to the same laws. Here’s what that means: If a public official breaks the rules by going to a party hosted by a corporation that lobbies, both the public official and the party’s host are liable. But if a public official breaks the rules by attending a super PAC party, Kelner says it’s likely only the official will face any consequences.

Bottom line: Have fun on inauguration weekend—but not so much fun that it’s illegal.