News & Politics

Proceed With Caution When Attending Inaugural Events

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

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.

Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.