America is a place where most people have made their peace with helping foot the bill for certain essential services. Police stations, fire departments, national parks and public roads are generally welcome uses for tax revenue. Other items on the list are a little harder to swallow.
When a new president or governor is elected to office in the United States, the inauguration ceremony is accompanied by much fanfare, speechifying and celebration. There’s dancing, there’s drinking and there are numerous parties.
All of that costs money. How much money, exactly – and why should taxpayers have to pay for a party most of them don’t get to attend, for a person they may not have voted for?
Paying for State-Level Inaugurations
Obviously, inauguration ceremonies for governors are somewhat less of a big deal than ceremonies for the president of the United States. Since this is the case, the cost of a state-level inauguration is typically significantly lower than those at the federal level. That’s understandable, largely because of the level of security involved with any sort of presidential goings-on.
In 2010, Tom Corbett was elected governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. His subsequent inauguration festivities, held in January of 2011, cost the Pennsylvania Department of General Services almost $104,000. About $88,000 of that cost went to Commonwealth Media Services. The remaining $15,000 went to Capitol Police officers who handled security, traffic and overall event control.
How much of that $104,000 was paid for by the taxpayers of Pennsylvania? Not all of it. People who supported the governor and wanted to celebrate with him kicked in some cash to help spruce up the event. Governor Tom Wolf’s inauguration earlier this year carried a similar price tag, a portion of which provided a boost to local businesses, such as Mountain Productions, which provided the impressive staging for the event.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to hold an inauguration that costs the taxpayers nothing, or as close to it as we can manage. That means the fundraisers go into full gear trying to solicit donations for the event. Of course, it doesn’t always turn out that way.
At the federal level, the cost is much higher. In early 2009, there was no shortage of outrage from folks on the right about the cost of Barack Obama’s first inauguration ceremony: about $160 million. At the time, they were claiming that price tag was $100 million more than the same ceremony for former President George W. Bush.
The outrage was based in part by a New York Daily News article that stated:
“It will take Barack Obama less than a minute to recite the oath of office – and when he’s done dancing at the inaugural balls Jan. 20, the price tag for his swearing-in festivities could approach $160 million.”
“Obama’s inaugural committee is in the midst of raising roughly $45 million in private funds, exceeding the $42.3 million President Bush spent in 2005. In 1993, Clinton spent $33 million when Democrats returned to the White House for the first time in 12 years.”
The reproachful tone is unmistakable – enough that one wonders how the paper would have reported things differently if they were speaking of a president they actually cared for. The major takeaway is that the analysts conveniently neglected to include the cost of Bush’s security detail when covering the cost. The reality is that both ceremonies ultimately cost about the same amount of money.
If the cost of security is subtracted, then a presidential inauguration runs about $40 million to $50 million. That means the cost of security alone is about $110 million to $120 million.
That’s an expensive security detail. However, let’s remember that we’re talking about the swearing-in ceremony for the president of the United States – the leader of the free world. He is basically a walking bulls-eye for America’s enemies.
Now we’ve got a new president waiting in the wings. So what will Mr. Trump’s party cost the taxpayer?
This may come as a shock, but not as many people are excited about President Trump as were excited about President Obama in 2009. As a result, Google Trends predicts far less interest from folks in actually attending Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. If you do wish to attend for some reason, know that Trump International Hotel, newly opened and conveniently located within shoe-throwing distance from the White House, requires inauguration guests commit to a five-night stay, for a highly affordable $1,200 per night during inauguration week.
Don’t say Trump doesn’t take care of his friends.
As for the ceremony itself, who better to help a billionaire plan his party than a bunch of billionaires? Donors to the Trump campaign, prospective additions to the Trump administration and – just for good measure – a few hand-picked members of the Forbes 400 have all found themselves on the 20-person panel responsible for planning the event. As with past years, the base cost of Trump’s inauguration is expected to be around $50 million, minus the cost of event security.
The good news is, the common folk will also be represented at this who’s who of cronies and shills, thanks to strong representation from protestors, several thousand of which have also committed to attending the Trump inauguration festivities.
Another interesting angle in the matter of Trump’s ascension in January concerns regret-filled voters who purchased tickets to the inauguration party and ball – and then watched the election results roll in. These folks – many of them students who expected a Clinton victory – are now stuck with tickets they don’t want, and have found themselves reduced to hawking their unwanted tickets at below-market-value prices.
Some of these students paid $135 for their tickets as late as Election Day, while some faculty members paid $175. Kind of a sad turn for many who predicted Jan. 20 might be a day for muted and introspective celebration, rather than existential bleakness. What a difference a couple months makes.
Democracy in Motion
As with the gubernatorial ceremonies, the entire presidential inauguration ceremony is not paid for by taxpayers. Some of it is paid for by private donations as well, like the 1-percenters Trump has tapped for his own party-planning committee. As expected, these are the usual political partisans who support the agenda of the new president.
People are especially willing to fork over a sizeable chunk of change if the new president represents a different party from the previous president. They view the new president as a relief that the old party is no longer in charge. In 2005, almost the entire cost of Bush’s swearing-in ceremony, minus security, was raised by donations. The rest was paid for by taxpayers.
Also, keep in mind that it’s not just federal taxpayers that get stuck with the tab for the inauguration. The District of Columbia, where the president lives and gets sworn in, chips in as well. This means that D.C. residents pay for the inauguration in a way that taxpayers elsewhere do not.
I’m not sure there’s really a lesson to be learned here, other than parties are expensive, and U.S. presidents get to throw really big parties. Frankly, some of this pomp and circumstance is well justified, if it means getting people inspired and involved. That’s really the point here, right? If we’re looking for a way to justify the expense and the spectacle, I think that’s where we’ll find it: in the hearts and minds of people who get to see, after a long and grueling campaign process, what their vote has bought them. It’s a reminder of Democracy in motion.
It can also be a gut-punch of a reminder that Democracy doesn’t always play out in our favor. In cases like those, it’s an admonition to do better next time.
Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons license)
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