President George W. Bush speaks to the crowd at the 55th presidential inauguration, on the West Front of the Capitol.
“So is this, like, the official book, Jeanie?”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) was calling to his staff director, Jean Bordewich. They had just walked into the President’s Room, an ornate meeting room just off the Senate floor, where Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) was already flipping through the leather-bound, gilded-edged album.
It had been brought to show the six lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies what they were working toward: putting together an event attended by hundreds of thousands to celebrate the 2013 swearing-in of the president of the United States.
Convened by Congress for the first time in 1901, the special panel formed every four years to orchestrate the inaugural celebration on Capitol Hill uses tradition and precedent to cull its membership.
The Senate Rules and Administration chairman always sits at the helm: This year, that’s Schumer.
The Rules and Administration ranking member, now Alexander, is also on board.
The remaining members are the Senate Majority Leader (Nevada Democrat Harry Reid), the Speaker (Ohio Republican John Boehner), the House Majority Leader (Virginia Republican Eric Cantor) and the House Minority Leader (California Democrat Nancy Pelosi).
With a budget of $1.2 million and a cadre of able staffers — including many inauguration veterans — the wheels are now in motion to begin preparations for an event that’s about nine months away.
In Congress’ early involvement in inauguration planning, dating back to 1789, the Senate was exclusively in charge.
But as presidential inaugurations grew from modest affairs to more lavish celebrations, House Members began to grumble that they wanted to play an equal part.
Resentment came to a head in 1897, when House Members learned Senators would receive twice as many tickets to President William McKinley’s inauguration and that the platform would be erected in front of the Senate wing of the Capitol.
Senators insisted they had unique status to advise the president on a spectrum of matters, from nominations to party planning.
Four years later, they gave in, and the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies was born.
The panel’s members stay abreast of the big issues to be confronted in the months leading up to the inauguration, becoming more involved as the big day nears.
“The experience was a little bit like being mayor of San Francisco and planning for the Democratic National Convention in 1984,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the inauguration committee chairwoman for the 2009 event.
This year’s committee members are already making it known they don’t want a repeat of the last inauguration, when record attendance to celebrate the first black president’s swearing-in led to major crowd-control issues and hundreds of ticket-holders being shut out of the festivities.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.