One thing Barack Obama’s Inauguration hasn’t changed: the free market.
The distribution of 240,000 free tickets to the nation’s most eagerly anticipated party has spawned a thriving gray market in tickets despite official discouragement, threats of confiscation and tough ID requirements.
Politico has found that dozens of entrepreneurial citizens — some with close Hill ties — are hawking their tickets to the event on Washington’s Craigslist for prices of $500 per ticket and more. They’re also engaged in a spirited game of cat and mouse with the congressional staffers charged with giving out the tickets.
“I believe the scalping of inaugural tickets runs contrary to the spirit of this historic Inauguration,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the Rules Committee chairwoman who has introduced legislation to bar their sale. “Anyone who has requested tickets from my office will be required to agree not to sell them or will have their tickets revoked.”
Others are less outraged — or at least more resigned that this particular law of commerce is difficult to curb.
“You can’t stop supply and demand,” said Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University. “Furthermore, I suspect most of these people don’t really feel they are doing anything wrong in reselling the tickets. It’s not as if they are condemning orphans to starvation.”
The Inauguration is officially hosted by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, and members of Congress hand out the bulk of the tickets. Some give them out to friends, donors and allies; others have doled them out in online lotteries. None of those contacted by Politico said they’d give their tickets away knowing they’d be sold, and Feinstein, among others, took back tickets after Politico flagged a Craigslist listing.
The Joint Congressional Committee also circulated a memo Monday — after Politico asked about a Craigslist ticket vendor claiming to be the husband of a Senate staffer — threatening congressional aides with ethics charges if they sell their tickets.
The sellers have a variety of motives. Some of them just don’t like Obama very much.
“I would rather not be around thousands of teary-eyed people who think they are having a spiritual experience because their lord and savior is speaking to them,” e-mailed Russ Jones, a conservative college student from Utah who got his tickets from Republican Sen. Bob Bennett.
Others are selling tickets for more mundane reasons.
“I just hope to pay for my motel,” said Kathy Tanner, who is coming up from Florida for the event and who has extra tickets because friends canceled. “I don’t expect to get too much money for them. I hope to get $100.”
Politico was able to contact sellers after a reader, who said she was motivated by anger at scalpers and a desire to keep the Inauguration free, forwarded her correspondence with several Craigslist ticket sellers.
All seemed aware that they were operating in a gray area by selling the tickets, and all were unhappy to be contacted by a reporter.
“He’s going to kill me,” Gina Santucci, a former counsel to Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) said of her former boss’s likely reaction to the discovery that she was selling tickets.
A spokeswoman for Poe, Deeanna Thigpen, said the office’s policy was that unused tickets should be returned, not sold, and that the situation had been “resolved.”
Other sellers went to greater length to avoid detection. One Craigslist poster, who identified himself only as “Mike,” wrote that “for legal reasons” he would be selling a copy of The Washington Post for $500. Inside, incidentally, would be two inaugural tickets.
“As far as I know right now, it’s completely legal,” said “Mike,” who declined to give his last name and spoke from a cell phone registered to an office building in Manassas, Va. He claimed, in correspondence, to be married to a staffer for Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). But a spokeswoman for Gregg said she could find no one who fit his description, and he appeared confused about which committees Gregg sits on.
Spokespeople for Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) and Rep. Melissa L. Bean (D-Ill.) also said they were taking back tickets after learning that they were being sold on Craigslist.
“It’s the congresswoman’s policy not to distribute Inauguration tickets to anyone who intends to sell them. If we learn that a ticket recipient is planning to sell his or her tickets, that recipient will be removed from the list and will not get tickets,” said Bean spokesman Jonathan Lipman. “We’ll just move to the next constituent in our lottery.”