President Bush wants to lower barriers to building nuclear power plants, and the lobby that promotes nuclear energy could not be happier. To show its thanks, the group has given $100,000 to help pay for his inauguration.
"He's a big supporter," said John E. Kane, chief lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Institute. "Our donation is just a small way of supporting him."
The nuclear energy industry's contribution is part of a record-breaking outpouring of corporate cash for next week's inaugural festivities. At least 88 companies and trade associations, along with 39 top executives -- all with huge stakes in administration policies -- have already donated $18 million toward a $40 million goal for the country's 55th inaugural celebration.
Wall Street investment firms seeking to profit from private Social Security accounts; oil, gas and mining companies pushing the White House to revive a stalled energy-subsidy bill; and hotels and casinos seeking an influx of immigrant labor are among the 44 interests that have each given $250,000 and the 66 that have donated $100,000 to $225,000. And the money keeps pouring in.
Practically all the major donors have benefited from Bush administration policies, especially from corporate and individual tax cuts, deregulation and the new prescription drug benefit that is part of Medicare. Most also stand to boost profits further because of Bush's second-term proposals, which include limiting medical malpractice suits, creating private investment accounts as part of Social Security and making a tax-code revision that is expected to reduce taxes on investments.
Many donors are corporations and executives that are regulated by the federal government, dependent on government tax and spending policies, or both. At least 16 donors are from the finance industry, 14 are from the energy sector, six are real estate developers, and at least five are from both the health and telecommunications industries. The Washington Post Co. has pledged $100,000.
In the era of campaign finance reform, such largesse is all but forbidden. Federal law limits individual donations to $2,000 per election, and corporations cannot give from their own treasuries directly to candidates or parties. But for the inauguration, the law does not apply, and the administration has decided that private interests may contribute as much as $250,000 each. That is a 150 percent increase over the $100,000 maximum accepted during Bush's first inauguration four years ago.
An inaugural committee spokeswoman said the higher ceiling is needed to meet its fundraising goal. The committee plans to raise $35 million to $40 million to help defray the costs of the four-day celebration, including fireworks, the swearing-in, a parade and nine balls. In 2001, the committee raised $40 million.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton's inaugural committee spent $33 million, raised primarily from souvenir and ticket sales, although there were 13 donors who gave $100,000 apiece and one who gave $250,000.
Critics see the high contribution limit as a vehicle for groups with business before government to buy more access to the people who make big-dollar federal decisions.
"Donors are going to say it's civic participation that motivates them, but they also use their contributions to buy access to lawmakers and the administration," said Sheila Krumholz, research director of the Center for Responsive Politics. "The advantage is enormous."
"The donations give executives another chance to rub up to politicians," agreed Bill Allison, managing editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
For corporations in particular, the benefit is almost unique. With the exception of the presidential nominating conventions, companies do not have legal ways to give significant amounts of cash to assist politicians. Even the now-ubiquitous independent groups, called 527s, that bought millions of dollars of advertisements during the presidential campaign have proved to be ill-suited to company contributions.
As a result, Krumholz said, "The inaugural committee provides opportunities to corporations that are hampered by the 'soft money' ban." Three years ago, Congress passed the McCain-Feingold law barring companies from donating unlimited amounts of money -- also called soft money -- to the political parties.
The only restraint on giving is the voluntary $250,000 limit, but that has been circumvented. In a few instances, both the parent company and its subsidiaries have donated. Marriott International Inc. delivered $250,000 to the committee, as did each of two units: Marriott Vacation Club International and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.
In addition, Ameriquest, a mortgage company specializing in financing housing purchases in heavily minority neighborhoods, gave $250,000, along with $500,000 from two subsidiaries, for a total of $750,000.
Marriott and other hoteliers are pushing hard for the type of liberalized immigration laws favored by the president to gain a larger labor pool. Ameriquest and others in what is known as the sub-prime mortgage industry are seeking legislation that would set national standards preempting tougher laws in a number of states.
Roland and Dawn Arnall of Los Angeles, the chairman and co-chairman, respectively, of Ameriquest, and their companies are more than contributors to the inauguration. They are also the single biggest source of financial support for Bush since 2002. Over the period, they gave and raised at least $12.25 million.
Dawn Arnall gave $1 million to the Republican National Committee in 2002 and $5 million to the pro-Bush 527 group called Progress for America Voter Fund. She served as a co-chairman of the New York Republican Convention Host Committee, with an obligation to raise at least $5 million.
Roland and Dawn Arnall were major fundraisers in 2004, earning the title of "Ranger" for collecting at least $200,000 for the Bush-Cheney ticket and "Super Ranger" for collecting at least $300,000 for the RNC. Roland Arnall hosted a Bush-Cheney fundraiser at his home in August 2004 that produced more than $1 million. Shortly after winning reelection, Bush announced the appointment of the Arnalls as honorary co-chairmen of the inaugural fundraising committee.
A spokeswoman said that "the Arnalls do not grant interviews."
Another $250,000 donor to the inauguration who played a major role in the 2004 election is T. Boone Pickens, a Texas oilman and corporate raider. He gave $2.5 million to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which attacked John F. Kerry's record in Vietnam, and $2.5 million to the pro-GOP 527 organization Progress for America.
Similarly, the $250,000 inaugural contribution of Alexander G. Spanos, a real estate developer and owner of the National Football League's San Diego Chargers, was a small fraction of the $5 million he gave to Progress for America and the $1 million he gave to the New York City Convention Host Committee, which helped to fund the Republicans' presidential nominating convention last summer.
Many of the inauguration's benefactors are veteran Republican and Bush backers. Thirty-nine of the individual donors were substantial fundraisers in 2004 for the Bush reelection campaign, the Republican National Committee or both. Twenty-one entities or individuals also helped underwrite the Republican National Convention. Nine inaugural contributors funded one or more pro-Bush 527 organization.
Donors offer a range of reasons for participating in the inauguration. One is simply to get good, guaranteed seats and tickets. All donors of $100,000 or more receive benefits keyed to the four-day tribute. These include 38 tickets to 10 balls, receptions, galas and the swearing-in ceremony. Givers of $250,000 get 80 tickets to the 10 events. In addition, big donors' names, or the names of their corporations, will appear on official printed materials.
Edward L. Yingling, incoming president of the American Bankers Association, which gave $25,000, said: "We gave enough to get the sets of tickets we need for bankers, some of our staff and some friends of the industry who want to go to certain events."
Patrick Butler, vice president of The Washington Post Co., said the company, which is the parent of this newspaper, agreed to donate to be sure that it has enough tickets to the Inaugural Ball to cover its major corporate advertisers, which The Post fetes at the event every four years.
A spokesman for the Boeing Co., which gave $100,000, said the money is "to help in celebrating the defining event in the American democratic process." Boeing is dealing with federal probes into the tactics it used to win a contract to lease and sell to the Air Force 100 refueling tankers for $23.5 billion.
A few groups are forthright about their desire to see and be seen. "We want our presence to be known here in Washington and at the inauguration," said Lucien Salvant, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors, which contributed $50,000. "We consider ourselves the chief spokesman for real estate issues and property rights, and we want people to recognize that."
Research database editor Derek Willis contributed to this report.