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Welcome party costs $170M

- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

Wall Street shares and home prices have tumbled, Americans' pensions have shrunk and the government is spending more than $1 trillion to bail out failing banks and businesses. Not exactly an opportune time to throw a $170 million party.

But that's what Tuesday's inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama is projected to cost when all the security, official festivities, concerts and transportation expenses are added up. Taxpayers will pick up most of the tab.

The question of whether it makes a good investment depends on one's vantage point.

RELATED STORY:Economic turmoil grips inaugural events

"I'm cheap by every standard, but this is history," said Tomia Austin, in town from Atlanta, adding that she hopes to one day tell her grandchildren about attending the inauguration.

"You can't have such a collection of people here in the capital without paying to keep them safe," added Suzannah Leisher, 44, who came from Millburn, N.J., to witness history.

But Randy Reehm, a retired U.S. Army colonel now living in Russellville, Ark., said he thought there were "much better things that could be done with that money ... absolutely.

"I realize that many people feel this inauguration will be part of a healing process for the entire country," he said in a telephone interview. "And let's hope that it is. But with all the new government programs this new administration is going to bring about, I hope the inauguration is not just a demonstration of the unbridled spending that will follow."

The final tally won't be known for weeks. But few dispute that it is shaping up to be an expensive few days.

Tuesday's swearing-in ceremony itself has a budget of $1.24 million. The 10 official balls, the Lincoln Memorial concert and the services Tuesday on the Mall are likely to come in at $45 million. The District, Maryland and Virginia say they are footing $75 million in security and transportation costs, and the federal government's security expenses have been estimated at $49 million.

The ceremony, orchestrated by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, is funded by taxpayers. The local jurisdiction costs are footed by local taxpayers.

The inaugural parties and Mall expenses, among other costs, are paid by the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC), which raised money through private donations.

Inaugural planners said they had to balance the excitement of a historic inauguration with the nation's worsening economy, which now has Americans tightening their belts.

"There is an importance [in allowing] people to come together in a sense of common purpose and to mark a new beginning in a positive way ... in trying to make this as open and as accessible as we possibly can," said Kevin Griffis, a spokesman for the inaugural committee.

The free Lincoln Memorial concert and the JumboTrons on the Mall haven't been tried to the same extent in the past, he said.

Four years ago, President Bush's PIC expenses totaled $43 million. That did not include security costs.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District's nonvoting member of Congress, said most of the inauguration-related expenditures are being spent to police and transport the expected big crowds, not on fancy inaugural balls.

"It looks like the Obama people recognize the predicament they were coming into," she said. "It appears they've tried to recognize that the crowds would need to have something to do, while at the same time not creating the kinds of festivities that would make it seem they were oblivious to the economic crisis."

Mrs. Norton said the burden is falling on local jurisdictions and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. She said she would ask Congress for more money for Metro.

"This is a national event and it would have flopped if Metro hadn't stepped up to the plate," she said.

The District, Maryland and Virginia have asked to be reimbursed for $75 million in expenses to cover security, road closures and other costs because of their proximity to the event.

Mr. Bush declared the District an emergency area on Jan. 13, opening the door for $15 million in federal assistance. Maryland's congressional delegation also wants a federal disaster declaration.

Citing "difficult economic times," the Maryland delegation sent a letter to Mr. Bush estimating that state and local governments are expected to spend at least $12 million. The costs include providing security for Mr. Obama's whistle-stop train tour through the state this past weekend.

"The state of Maryland will be providing critical services to keep its residents safe and secure, and it is essential that the federal government provide assistance to cover the associated costs," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat.

The inaugural committee raised its money from the private sector, but shunned donations from political action committees, lobbyists, corporations and unions.

The committee consists of Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker, business executive John W. Rogers Jr., retired executive Pat Ryan, former Commerce Secretary William Daley and professional fundraiser Julianna Smoot, who established what they called in a statement a $50,000 contribution limit to underscore their "commitment to change business as usual in Washington."

• Kara Rowland and Sean Lengell contributed to this report.