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Inaugural Economics

This Friday, Donald Trump will participate in a tradition that has held since April 30, 1789 – the Presidential Inauguration. On that date, George Washington was sworn in by Chancellor Robert R. Livingston in New York City, which was the national capital at the time. While the oath taken by the incoming president has remained largely unchanged over the centuries, almost everything else about the inaugural ceremony has changed. Thomas Jefferson became the first president to take the oath in Washington, D.C. in 1801. Four years later, a horseback procession and spontaneous celebration following Jefferson’s second swearing in ceremony laid the groundwork for today’s inaugural parades. In 1865, Abraham Lincoln used his inauguration to make a powerful political statement, inviting African Americans to participate in the inaugural ceremonies for the first time. While today’s spectacles still celebrate the rich history of the American system and its transfer of power, the costs of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the ceremony have grown exponentially. While the estimated $170 million price tag for the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama raised eyebrows publicly, the bipartisan trend of expensive swearing in ceremonies has been long in the making and shows no signs of slowing down, with President-Elect Trump’s ceremony expected to approach the $200 million mark.

In 2013, the Congressional Research Service released a report attempting to outline the source of these ever-increasing inaugural expenses. The report admitted that “determining the total costs of an inauguration… is difficult” because only a small portion of public funds are specifically labeled as inauguration appropriations. These specific earmarks, including $3.6 million to the Architect of the Capitol for the construction of an inauguration platform and other structures and $1.2 million for the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies fall far short of the $170 million figure, leaving a lot of guesswork within the less segmented budgets of agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, which does not specify expenses related specifically to the swearing in ceremony.

Still the Congressional report was able to determine that the vast majority of inaugural expenses are related to security, a fact echoed by other independent research into the ceremonies. In 2009, for example, the District of Columbia “spent an estimated $42.98 million on inauguration-related law enforcement, first responders, transportation, and communication,” while federal agencies such as the Department of Defense spent another $21 million on military personnel and other security-related expenses. Beyond construction and security costs, public funds are used for maintenance, fencing, sanitation, and other miscellaneous expenses.

Fortunately, taxpayers do not have to foot the entire bill. The Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) is a non-governmental organization that raises funds via donation and runs the more entertainment-based aspects of the inauguration, including parades, concerts, and inaugural balls. The PICs are established every four years post-election and are completely independent. President Obama’s 2009 PIC, for example, refused to accept corporate gifts, while President-Elect Trump’s current PIC has banned contributions from lobbyists. Usually, private donations are incentivized with access to special inaugural events, such as VIP parade tickets, receptions, and dinners. The current PIC, for example, is offering two tickets to “an intimate dinner with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Mrs. Karen Pence” to individuals who donate $500,000 or more.

There is no mistaking the change in the costs of inaugurations over the years. Perhaps more important, however, is what has stayed the same. These ceremonies, just as they were in the earliest days of our nation, remain an enduring symbol of the American political system and the transfer of power. This Friday, we will celebrate the continuation of this great American tradition.

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