President-elect Barack Obama is not taking any corporate or federal lobbyist money to pay for his inauguration, but businesses and their lobbying arms are lining up to underwrite the celebrations surrounding his swearing-in Jan. 20.
American Airlines donated $40,000 to a Jan. 19 ball sponsored by the Illinois State Society, which represents Obama's home state. Chicago-based utility Exelon is donating $80,000 to the Illinois ball and a separate gala for Pennsylvania powerbrokers.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, which lobbies to build more nuclear power plants, will co-host an invitation-only party in a downtown office building where attendees can watch the Inaugural Parade. Tickets to many other balls are quickly snapped up by political insiders and members of state societies that sponsor them.
These gatherings aren't new, but government watchdog groups say they offer a view of the ways special interests can curry favor with politicians.
"These are lobbyist-sponsored soirees to have a great time and schmooze with members of Congress and congressional staff," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen. He said many of the events are "inherently unfair" because they aren't public.
Obama won't be the only politician feted next month. Despite new rules aimed at severing ties between lawmakers and special interests, members of Congress will be honored at inaugural events — including some paid by industries they regulate. An ethics law passed last year barred lawmakers from attending parties in their honor at national political conventions but was silent on inauguration-related events.
Textbook publishers and educational-software providers, for instance, are helping to pay for a ball honoring Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., chairman of the education committee.
Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagner said the award recognizes the senator's "public policy efforts in support of education technology" and won't sway his decision-making.
Obama, who pledged that special interests would not have an inside track in his administration, is not accepting inaugural money from federal lobbyists, corporations, political action committees or unions. He has collected nearly $10 million to help pay expenses not covered by public funds. More than 240 people have donated.
Presidents and their wives traditionally attend only official balls. The Obamas will attend 10 official balls, most at the Washington Convention Center. He is giving tickets to invitation-only events to donors.
That hasn't stopped interest groups from planning unofficial parties. One example: The Creative Coalition, the entertainment industry's advocacy group, will host a gala featuring singer Sting. More than 40 lawmakers are "honorary" hosts.
"This is our welcome to the new president, the new administration and the new Congress," said Robin Bronk of the coalition, which pushes domestic movie production. "We believe in making our issues heard."
The Price of Power is an ongoing series tracking money in politics.