Inauguration weekend: Washington gets ready to party

"I like a good party," President Obama insisted this week, defending his social relationships with members of Congress.

That said, the president argued that business ultimately gets done in Washington when the American people demand it. "And that will be true whether I'm the life of the party or a stick in the mud," he said.

That may in part explain why, at a time when Americans are expecting lawmakers to address serious issues like the debt ceiling and gun control, the Presidential Inaugural Committee is celebrating the president's second-term swearing in with just two official balls, compared to the 10 held in 2009. To be sure, those two parties will be impressive -- tens of thousands of people are expected to attend, and they may get a glimpse of the president as they elbow their way to the front of the bar.

But for the Washingtonians who are serious about partying, there are more than 100 other events happening over inaugural weekend. These events aren't affiliated with the Presidential Inaugural Committee; independent groups are simply taking advantage of the celebratory weekend to party -- often with lawmakers. There are parties, balls, brunches and receptions planned for the weekend, where Obama administration officials, members of Congress and their staffers will mingle over cocktails with anyone who has the cash to get in.

Usually, the people willing to put up the cash for a swanky party have an agenda to push. And in spite of the president's lofty views of governance, many in Washington realize that having a party is a good way to win over lawmakers.

"It's a different way to get a message across -- with a drink in your hand, sitting in a nice setting -- as opposed to hammering things out over a table," said Doug Durante of the Clean Fuels Foundation. His organization is helping to organize the Environmental and Clean Energy Inaugural Ball, billed as a classy event where, for $200 a ticket, those interested in the environment and the clean energy industry can mingle with lawmakers while enjoying an open bar, a full dinner buffet and a live band.

"No one's really talking serious business, but the overall message is quite clear," Durante said. "It's got a different and to some degree lasting effect [than a business meeting] because it's a good time -- people don't remember bad meetings."

There's nothing wrong with people who work together, hashing out legislation, celebrating a special event like the presidential inauguration together -- social events can clearly strengthen relationships between professionals with common interests. But while the inauguration only takes place every four years, hobnobbing with powerful people is all too common for lobbyists and those who represent special interests in Washington. The Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government, keeps tabs of all the social events at which donors with deep pockets mingle with lawmakers.

"It's another opportunity for the same type of people who go to fundraisers to buy access to lawmakers," Kathy Kiely, the Sunlight Foundation's managing director, said of the inauguration. Sunlight monitors such parties, she said, so that voters "understand the leg up that people who are in this sort of political industrial complex have."

For lawmakers and staffers looking to party this weekend, there are plenty of options. The pop singer Ke$ha is scheduled to perform at the Recording Industry Association of America's charity benefit on Monday, while Cyndi Lauper is headlining the Human Rights Campaign's inaugural ball. There are events for certain states, like the Texas State Society's Black Tie and Boots ball and the New Jersey State Society's Garden State Inaugural Gala. There are parties for those with specific hobbies like yoga and events for specific groups like the Black McDonald's Operators Association. Some events are invitation-only, while others are cheap (like the Inaugural Ball for the Rest of Us, at $65 a pop) and others are pricey (like the Hip Hop Inaugural Ball, with tickets ranging from $500 to $2,500).

Some events, like the Bytes & Books Inaugural Ball and the Presidential Pearl Gala, promise members of Congress or the administration will be in attendance. In all likelihood, lawmakers won't be paying for their tickets. According to House and Senate ethics rules, members can attend an event for free, at the invitation of the host, if it is "widely attended." There are rules limiting the "gifts" members of Congress can receive, but there are exceptions. For inaugural weekend parties, senators may attend for free "if at least 25 persons from outside Congress are expected to attend, the event is open to members from throughout a given industry or profession, or to a range of persons interested in an issue, and the Member or staffer determines that attendance is appropriately connected with his or her official duties or position."

The organizers of the Environmental and Clean Energy Inaugural Ball expect to host a number of congressmen who work on energy issues. They've also locked down guests from the administration, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu and John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Durante said the event should draw somewhere between 500 and 600 guests.

"We're able to galvanize this many people and pull together and get a message out that the environment's important, and clean energy's an important part of that," he said.