WASHINGTON - Large corporations, many of which have enormous regulatory and policy interests in Washington, are paying for most of President Bush's inauguration.
Critics call the arrangement too cozy, while others say the lavish spending is inappropriate in a time of war and as South Asia recovers from a devastating tsunami.
Bush told reporters Thursday he sees no problem with either how the money is raised or how it is spent. "There's no taxpayer money involved in this," he said.
The inaugural celebration is expected to cost up to $40 million, with the money all raised from private donations. That would tie the record set by Bush's 2001 inaugural. Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural cost $33 million, the previous record.
That amount doesn't include the swearing-in itself, or security for inaugural events, two costs the government does cover. Officials say those will be in the millions of dollars, although they don't know how much yet.
But for the associated celebrating, it's become common for private donations to pay for the ever escalating partying that is the biggest part of any inauguration.
Of the more than $25 million raised so far by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, more than two-thirds came from corporate coffers.
As of Jan. 14, 42 corporate contributors chipped in $250,000 each, the self-imposed maximum donation accepted by the committee. Unlike campaign contributions, there's no legal limit to how much a donor can give.
Financial services companies and their executives have donated more than any other industry, with 26 financial services firms donating more than $4 million. The industry could reap a windfall if Congress approves Bush's plan for private investment accounts as part of Social Security. It also has an interest in Bush's goal of extending the tax cuts of his first term.
Energy companies and their executives contributed more than $2.7 million. They've worked closely with the Bush Administration for years to pass an industry-friendly energy bill that remains stalled in Congress.
Bush told reporters Thursday that the energy bill is a major goal of his second term. "I feel good we'll be able to get one out" of Congress this year, he said.
The companies call the donations good corporate citizenship, saying they are merely participating in an important rite of democracy and enabling average Americans to enjoy events such as the inaugural parade and the inauguration eve fireworks.
"We view this as a patriotic event and a patriotic thing to do," said Terri McCullough, spokeswoman for Southern Co., an energy firm that gave $250,000 to the committee.
Many donor companies have contributed to inaugurations in the past, for both Democrats and Republicans.
Asked whether it was appropriate for companies with legislative and regulatory concerns to pay for his inauguration, Bush said, "It's exactly what happened last inauguration, the inauguration before, the inauguration before."
Bush said if he thought it was inappropriate, "I wouldn't be doing it."
But critics say that for-profit companies don't give money away without a reason involving self-interest.
"It's part of their government relations and influence program," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that monitors money in politics. "They're doing it to gain access to the White House and to members of Congress."
The access works on two levels, Noble said. First, there's the immediate access that donors get from rubbing shoulders with the powers-that-be at inaugural activities such as luncheons and balls.
Beyond that, it's an investment in establishing relationships down the road, so that they will be heard when key issues come to the fore.
Major donors receive tickets to elite events such as lunches, receptions and candlelight dinners at which many Washington movers and shakers are expected to appear, including Bush and Vice President Cheney.
Ed Lewis, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co., conceded that the big automaker had a number of interests in Congress and the Bush administration. He said Ford executives would receive access to many inaugural events because of the company's $250,000 donation. But he scoffed at the notion that helping to pay for the inauguration would help buy influence.
"We get our phone calls returned," Lewis said. "That's not a big issue for us."
Wealthy individuals are also big contributors.
Many are executives in the same key industries as donor companies. For example, Houston energy billionaire Rich Kinder and his wife contributed $250,000.
Others have long ties to the Republican Party and to Bush and his family through business or politics.
St. Louis manufacturing magnate Sam Fox has given millions to the party and its candidates over the years; at one time, he was the GOP's largest individual contributor. He and his wife Marilyn gave $100,000 to the inaugural committee.
Some critics object to massive fund raising for a lavish party while the country is fighting a war in Iraq and on the heels of the south Asian tsunami that killed more than 150,000 and left 5 million homeless.
Two Democratic congressmen wrote to Bush last week urging him to tone down the festivities.
Bush brushed off such suggestions Thursday, saying, "I'm very mindful of the tsunami victims."
"A lot of the people who are coming here to the inauguration have given" to tsunami victims, Bush said. "I think it's important to celebrate a peaceful transfer of power. And the money is all privately raised money. I'm looking forward to the celebration."
© 2005 Knight Ridder