Demand for inaugural tickets far exceeds supply

WASHINGTON — Good luck at getting inaugural tickets.

Demand far outstrips supply and grows more heated by the day. Lawmakers must figure out how to distribute what they have. First come, first served is one solution. Pure chance is another. Political connections can help, but not always.

Every inauguration draws crowds, but this one is special. The prospect of seeing Barack Obama sworn in Jan. 20 as the nation's first African-American president has brought a deluge of requests to the congressional offices that have a monopoly on the inaugural ticket market.

"They're really coming from all over," Spencer Pederson, spokesman for Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., said Monday. "It's a pretty diverse group."

The office of Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., for instance, has received requests for more than 1,000 inaugural tickets. That's five times more than the office has available. It is also commonplace, regardless of party affiliation. Radanovich's office has received requests for more than 800 tickets, and plans to stop accepting requests at the close of business Tuesday.

Even retiring House members are getting bombarded. The office of retiring Rep. John Doolittle, R-California, is advising callers to contact the district's new congressman in January — although the winner of the race to replace Doolittle has not yet been certified.

Even for returning incumbents, ticket allocation strategies remain in flux. Some, including Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a Democrat, indicated Monday they hadn't yet determined how to distribute the booty.

Every House member receives 198 inaugural tickets, to distribute however the lawmaker sees fit. The allocation includes 177 tickets for standing and 19 tickets for sitting. Two tickets are assigned to the lawmaker and significant other.

Every senator receives about 350 tickets. All told, about 240,000 tickets will be available.

The inaugural tickets themselves are free, despite what some would-be scalpers might claim.

"The inauguration of the president is one of the most important rituals of our democracy," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Monday. "The chance to witness this event should not be bought and sold like tickets to a football game."

Feinstein chairs the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is overseeing the big show. She introduced legislation Monday making it a misdemeanor punishable by fines up to $100,000 and up to a year in prison to counterfeit or sell the free inaugural tickets.

Inaugural ticket demand, always high, began accelerating immediately following Obama's historic Nov. 4 election victory. Some requesters are political activists or officeholders themselves, already well known to the congressional staff. In other cases, they are political newcomers.

By Monday, the office of Rep. Devin Nunes had received about 150 requests for more than 500 tickets. Most requesters were unknown to Nunes' staff. Nunes and Fresno Democrat Jim Costa — who received about 500 requests — are both distributing tickets on a first come, first served basis.

"They've come from everyone from John Q. Public, or Joe the Plumber, to local elected officials," said Costa's press secretary, Bret Rumbeck.

Others, including McNerney, have opted for a lottery to distribute tickets. Still others plan on a hybrid technique. Pederson said Radanovich's office will provide some through a lottery while retaining some for local elected officials.

In theory, spectators can show up in Washington without an inaugural ticket. The Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, for instance, is essentially open to all save for areas set aside for Presidential Inaugural Committee bleachers. On Monday, the National Park Service declared after some study that 24 bleachers would be set aside for 8,790 ticket holders.

"Some complained that these parade route sidewalks should not be reserved for the 'elite few' or the 'exclusive use of privileged elite and Wall Street donors,'" the park service noted Monday.

Inaugural balls and related events are a different matter altogether. They not only require tickets, but they can cost a bundle. On Jan. 18, for instance, the California State Society is sponsoring a Presidential Inaugural Luncheon and Fashion Show. The ticket-purchasing opportunities include, for $25,000, a "Presidential Debut Sponsorship" whose benefits include a VIP reception.

Throughout Washington, other inaugural balls will tempt the celebrants. Unlike the inaugural tickets, the rules against scalping don't apply. On Craigslist, for instance, one seller is currently asking $1,600 for two tickets to the Jan. 19 Illinois Inaugural Ball and Gala.