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An Inauguration for the People? Or for ExxonMobil?

David Callahan

The Hill reports today that ExxonMobil will contribute $250,000 to President Obama's inauguration.

This is the same ExxonMobil that tends to donate overwhelmingly to Republicans who favor a range of policies that help the fossil fuel industry. It's the same ExxonMobil that has spent $179 million on lobbying since 1998. It's the same ExxonMobil which contributed quietly for years to efforts to deny climate change and thwart a U.S. and global response to this challenge. And it's the same ExxonMobil that President Obama's has implicitly criticized on any number of occasions for getting tax breaks they don't deserve.

According to Steve Coll's book on ExxonMobil, Private Empire, this company is known to be extremely pragmatic in their political donations. As Coll wrote in The New Yorker:

During both the Bush and the Obama Administrations, ExxonMobil has concentrated its efforts in Washington on preventing certain tax and regulatory bills from being enacted, such as Obama’s proposal, this winter, to strip away industry tax advantages.

ExxonMobil must think they'll be getting something for their $250,000. Like maybe a sympathetic hearing in the West Wing and a better shot at keeping their tax breaks when Washington gets around to tackling corporate tax reform in the coming year or two. 

President Obama just won the last election he'll ever run in, so you'd think he could take a break from currying favor with the wealthy and corporations. And you'd hope that his inauguration could be about the ordinary people -- especially the young, Latinos, and African-Americans -- who put him in power with their votes. 

Instead, the opposite is happening. While President Obama didn't accept corporate money for his 2009 inauguration, he is accepting such money this time around. The President's Inaugural Committee set a goal of raising $50 million and seems happy to let just about anyone write big checks -- including companies that should be seen as sworn enemies, like ExxonMobil.

Of course, it's hard to know how much donors are giving, since the Obama team also changed it's policy from last time of revealing the amount that inaugural donors are giving. 

There is nothing new about an inauguration being used as a fundraising event. The lax contribution rules for inaugurations are yet another loophole in our campaign finance system that allow for big money to exert influence. Ditto for convention fundraising rules. While ExxonMobil could not legally and directly give $250,000 to Obama's reelection campaign, such a big contribution is perfectly legal under the rules for inaugurations. 

Inaugurations and party conventions should be special events that elevate and celebrate the foot soldiers of campaigns and political movements. Instead they have turned into glitzy confabs for the super wealthy. Given a chance to set a different tone, President Obama chose to move the needle even more in this disturbing direction. 

Meanwhile, another back door in the campaign finance system is on display right now as Republicans gather for a retreat at a posh resort in Williamsburg, Virginia. Much of the retreat, it turns out, is being underwritten by lobbyists. 

Years ago, Congress enacted stricter rules to stop lobbyists and special interests from paying for congressional junkets. But lawmakers quickly found a way around these rules. As the Wall Street Journal explained in 2009:

Lobbyists may not directly pay for lawmakers' travel and meals, under recently strengthened Congressional ethics rules. So instead, corporations contribute to tax-exempt groups -- and those groups pay for lawmakers to attend events.

The bill for this weekend's retreat, like so many other GOP retreats before, is being picked up by the Congressional Institute -- a corporate funded entity. Lawmakers will spend one evening socializing with lobbyists as part of the retreat. Republicans say that getting the Congressional Institute to pay saves taxpayer money, but the opposite is almost certainly true: Ordinary taxpayers are consistent losers in a system where special interests use superior access to get or preserve tax breaks and other perks. 

It's no secret that our campaign finance system is badly broken. A new Demos report, for instance, finds that the top 32 super PAC donors gave as much money in the last election cycle as 3.7 million small donors combined. That's right: just 32 people contributed as much as 3.7 million people.

Still, even jaded observers of money in politics may forget how many ways there are for money to enter the political process. The ExxonMobil contribution is yet more evidence of just how broken this system is.