Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del., on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. Biden's inauguration will be mostly virtual, with in person events scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic. Image Credit: NYT

Washington: President-elect Joe Biden’s allies have begun an ambitious campaign to raise millions of dollars from corporations and individuals by offering special “VIP participation” in reimagined inaugural festivities that will be largely virtual because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Far fewer tickets than normal are being distributed for people to attend the actual swearing-in ceremony outside the Capitol on Jan. 20, which is organised and funded by the government.

To create an air of celebration, Biden’s inaugural committee said it was raising private funds to pay for virtual events that will echo the Democratic convention this year, which featured a 50-state roll call from spots around the nation. There are also plans for a “virtual concert” with major performers whose names have not yet been released - and possibly for an in-person event later in the year.

The contrast between the constraints of putting on inaugural festivities in the midst of a public health crisis and fundraising as usual underscores how donations to an inaugural are not just about getting good seats for the swearing-in or tickets to the glitziest black-tie balls. They are also a way for corporations and well-heeled individuals to curry favour with a new administration, a reality that prompted liberal groups on Wednesday to ask Biden’s inaugural committee to forgo corporate donations.

VIP participation

President Donald Trump’s inauguration nearly four years ago took the practice to a new level. It became an access-peddling bazaar of sorts, and aspects of its record fundraising and spending emerged as the subjects of investigations.

Biden’s inaugural committee is promising corporations that give up to $1 million and individuals who contribute $500,000 - the largest amounts the committee said it would accept - some form of “VIP participation” in the virtual concert.

This special access is among the perks detailed on a one-page sponsorship menu from the committee that circulated among donors Wednesday. Perks include “event sponsorship opportunities,” as well as access to virtual briefings with leaders of the inaugural committee and campaign, and invitations to virtual events with Biden and his wife Jill, the future first lady, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff.

In-person access

Top donors typically get intimate in-person access at parties and dinners to celebrate with members of an incoming president’s campaign and administration.

Among the corporate giants who have indicated they are ready to donate despite the lack of in-person events is Boeing, the aerospace manufacturer and military contractor. The company is contributing $1 million to Biden’s inauguration, an amount it said is consistent with its past contributions to inaugural committees. Representatives from Bank of America and Ford Motor Co. also said their companies intended to donate.

A spokeswoman for the investment bank JPMorgan Chase, which has donated to past inaugurations, said that instead of giving to Biden’s committee, it would be donating to food banks in Washington and the hometowns of Biden (Wilmington, Delaware) and Harris (Oakland, California) “to help those impacted by the pandemic.”

An inauguration spokesman would not say how much had already been raised, or what the fundraising goal was.

Funds raised for inaugurations cannot be transferred to federal campaigns or party committees. Past inaugural committees have donated unspent funds to charities including those engaged in disaster relief, as well as groups involved in decorating and maintaining the White House and the vice president’s residence.

The effort by Biden’s inaugural committee to raise funds from corporate donors prompted puzzlement and objections from liberal activists, who have expressed concern about what they see as the Biden team’s coziness with corporate interests.

No legal limits

There are no legal limits on the sizes of donations that inaugural committees can accept, and there are few restrictions on who can give. Biden’s inaugural committee announced last month that it would voluntarily forgo donations from fossil fuel companies, registered lobbyists and foreign agents, in addition to limiting corporate donations to $1 million and individual donations to $500,000.

The Biden team has released few specifics regarding plans for the inauguration, other than a statement Tuesday urging people not to travel to Washington to attend the event given the pandemic and noting that the “ceremony’s footprint will be extremely limited.”

In an expression of just how unusual the event will be, the Biden inaugural committee named Dr. David Kessler, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, as an adviser to help with decisions on what kinds of events it can hold.

“We are asking Americans to participate in inaugural events from home to protect themselves, their families, friends and communities,” Kessler said in a statement.

In a typical inauguration year, a congressional committee that organises the swearing-in ceremony typically distributes 200,000 tickets to lawmakers for seats on the platform, risers and seating close to the West Front of the Capitol, which are then distributed to constituents and friends who want to attend.

But this year, the committee announced it would give just two tickets to the outdoor festivities to each of the 535 members of Congress, for them and a guest to attend.

Beyond this event, it is largely up to the Biden inauguration committee, where officials have said in recent days they are still working to “reimagine” and “reinvent” the inauguration.