Congress ‘Ready to Go’ on Inaugural

Posted September 22, 2004 at 5:25pm

There may be 40 days left before a winner emerges from the November presidential election, and another two months until he takes the oath of office, but the Congressional panel tasked with organizing the 55th inaugural ceremony is working at a hectic pace.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which oversees the swearing-in ceremony and related events on the Capitol grounds, has already accomplished a number of its rote responsibilities, such as printing invitations for the Jan. 20, 2005, affair.

“We are very far down the road,” Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the panel’s chairman, said Tuesday. “The tickets are already printed, the programs are printed, the gifts are ordered. We are ready to go.”

In fact, the JCCIC, a six-member panel comprising Senate and House leadership from both sides of the aisle, along with the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, began planning for the 2005 ceremony this spring.

Among its duties, the joint committee is responsible for organizing the swearing-in ceremony — some details, like the invitations, can be completed before the November election because they are generic materials and do not include the names of the president- and vice president-elect — as well as the post-ceremony Statuary Hall luncheon.

Other aspects of the ceremony, such as who will give the prayer and who will sing and recite an inaugural poem, are decided by the president-elect, who appoints a Presidential Inaugural Committee following the election. In addition, the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee coordinates military participation in the event.

While the logistical plans remain relatively the same for each inauguration cycle, Lott acknowledged that security will play a significantly more prominent role in the 2005 ceremony, the first to be held after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“We are really paying extra attention to that,” Lott said.

Among the changes, Lott noted, is a new post on the Rules committee tasked with coordinating security among various law enforcement agencies assigned to the inauguration.

The Capitol Police will provide a majority of the security on Congressional grounds and will coordinate with the Secret Service on the overall inaugural events, according to Officer Michael Lauer, a spokesman for the department.

“Certainly the inauguration is a large-scale event that we anticipate and plan for far in advance,” Lauer said.

As with previous inaugurals, the department will deploy its entire force — currently numbering around 1,600 sworn officers — to monitor the events on Capitol Hill.

“We’re going to be operating to full capacity,” Lauer said.

It remains unclear whether stricter security could impact media on hand to cover the event, but Larry Janezich, superintendent of the Senate Radio-TV Gallery, suggested members of the press could face more scrutiny when applying for credentials.

In previous years, media personnel have been asked to provide information including their Social Security numbers and dates of birth when seeking credentials.

“I’m confident there’ll be a greater effort to utilize that information to do background checks on press covering the inaugural this year,” Janezich said.

In addition, the Congressional panel is considering changes to the locations where broadcast media will be located during the swearing-in ceremony.

“Last time the electronic media was sitting dead center and obstructed the view of half the people out there,” Lott said. “We want that image to be conveyed to the American people, but we are looking to see if we can’t get it done without taking up half of the center stage.”

Construction of the inaugural stands — which will be on the West Front, the same location that has been used for the swearing-in ceremony since 1981 — began Wednesday, but it is not clear whether that will incorporate any changes in seating configuration. D.C.-based Tompkins Builders Inc. received a contract to build the stage.

In the meantime, hotels and restaurants throughout the District are slowly moving ahead on their schedules for January’s events.

At the Willard InterContinental Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, officials offer a waitlist for rooms, although many guests don’t confirm until after Election Day, said Barbara Bahny, the hotel’s public relations director.

A few blocks away at the Washington Convention Center, officials are already setting aside space for inaugural activities.

“Traditionally we’ve hosted the lion’s share of the formal inaugural events,” said Tony Robinson, the center’s public affairs director.

Robinson said he expects at least seven inaugural balls will be held in the new building, which opened in March 2003, but added that the bulk of activity orchestrating the events won’t begin until late November or December.

“You don’t get hot and heavy with the planning until you know who won the election,” Robinson added.