The Presidential Inaugural Ticket Sweepstakes

FILE - This Jan. 20, 2009 file-pool, photo shows President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama waving as they walk dow
FILE - This Jan. 20, 2009 file-pool, photo shows President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama waving as they walk down Pennsylvania Avenue en route to the White House from the Capitol in Washington. At some point on Inauguration Day, if all goes expected, the president’s limousine will slow to a stop on its journey down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. A Secret Service agent will open the rear passenger door, and the newly sworn-in president will emerge from his car for a several-minute stroll. The crowd will cheer. The president will wave. In that moment, Pennsylvania Avenue is America’s red carpet. And the president is the only celebrity on it. The victory walk has become an iconic inaugural moment, one expected by the public and the press. And though the tradition dates only to President Jimmy Carter, it has already developed an air of inevitability and predictable patterns. (AP Photo/Doug Mills, File, Pool)

Congress is often accused of imposing a higher ethical standard on others than itself. Consider the congressional sweepstakes for allocating tickets to the presidential inaugural swearing-in. Congressional offices have been inundated with requests for the free tickets. Many offices have responded by claiming they are allocating their tickets by lottery. Sounds fair, doesn't it?

The government heavily regulates sweepstakes conducted by commercial entities because history has taught us that otherwise such sweepstakes are often fraudulent. Without a credible third party to enforce sweepstake claims, the temptation for abuse is often overwhelming. As President Clinton said when signing Federal sweepstakes regulation in 1999, "Too often, mailing and sweepstakes practices seem designed to mislead."

Let's imagine that Congress was a business conducting the ticket sweepstakes and regulated under the Deceptive Mail Prevention and Enforcement Act (which is nevertheless much weaker than many state sweepstakes laws). It would have to disclose the number of tickets given away, promise that insiders who have supported the member of Congress wouldn't have better odds of receiving tickets, disclose the estimated market value of the tickets given away, disclose the schedule when the tickets will be distributed, and avoid self-contradictory statements about the ticket allocation.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which hands out the tickets to congressional offices, has mandated none of the above antifraud rules as a condition for receiving tickets. As widely reported in the press, it also won't disclose the number of tickets allocated to each office.

My survey of 30 Congressional websites revealed that only one office disclosed how many tickets would be awarded to the public. None stated that political supporters would get preferred access to any tickets.

Some Congressional offices don't explicitly promise to use a lottery to allocate tickets. Instead, they provide an entry form for collecting ticket requests without specifying how those requests will be prioritized. But an entry form including only basic contact information for selecting winners, a caveat that demand for tickets will likely outstrip supply, and no caveat of first-come, first-served, is an implicit promise that entrants will have equal odds of winning, which is a lottery. Note that first-come, first-served contests are inherently less democratic than a lottery unless there is a law (which would be impractical to credibly enforce across 535 congressional offices) that insiders won't have advance knowledge of a contest's starting date.

After the tickets were distributed to congressional offices on January 14, I asked the receptionists for the three congressional offices that represent me (two Senate and one House) to find out how many tickets their office had received and what fraction of those were being allocated to constituents. All replied that such information wasn't available.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Presidential Inaugural Committee, also conducted lotteries for distributing some of the inaugural parade and ball tickets, which were otherwise generally priced at $25 and $60 respectively.

Over the last several hundred years, the demand for inaugural tickets has grown without a corresponding increase in the Mall's capacity to accommodate it. The ratio of lottery entrants to winners in many congressional offices is already over 200:1, with the corresponding market value of all tickets combined in the tens of millions of dollars range. If the past is a guide, this value is likely to increase.

On the one hand, Congress has responded to the increase in demand by announcing allocation systems, such as lotteries, which are compatible with democratic values. On the other hand, the current congressional incentives and pattern of secrecy implies that many if not most of the tickets are actually going to political supporters, which is corrupt analogous to giving such supporters lucrative federal contracts.

Congress should pass a law making it subject to the same type of antifraud sweepstakes laws faced by business. Any tickets awarded as a result of congressional discretion rather than lottery should require public disclosure of recipients. And since under our constitutional system of checks & balances, the executive branch shouldn't be given enforcement powers, the independent Office of Congressional Ethics should be given those powers.

Congress has taken extraordinary measures to ensure that the tickets it gives out aren't scalped. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), who chairs the committee handing out the tickets and set an example for his congressional colleagues by distributing his office's undisclosed number of tickets via lottery, said in a statement that "This year's presidential inaugural ceremonies are not for sale. This is a chance for people from all 50 states to celebrate our democracy, not for ticket scalpers to make a quick buck." Now we need to ensure that Congress itself doesn't scalp the public.