Inauguration Prep Starts Next Week

Work on Massive Project to Begin Nearly Four Months Ahead of Event

Posted September 17, 2008 at 6:18pm

It’s only one day, but the presidential inauguration is the mother lode of event planning.

Tickets must be printed, stages erected, menus set and security foolproofed. Contingency plans are hashed out for everything from a day of harsh rain to larger crowds, and millions are spent on creating a seamless event.

All in all, preparing for that one day takes 10 Congressional staffers — mostly full time — hundreds of volunteers and an array of committees, federal agencies and Members.

On Wednesday, staffers and volunteers will gather at the Capitol’s West Front to witness the first nail being driven into the stage and to celebrate the official beginning of nearly four months of construction. When it’s finished, the stage will take up the entire West Front Lower Terrace and will hold 1,600 people.

The Architect of the Capitol is handling the construction, hiring crews to build from scratch a massive platform that will hold Members, security personnel and the press.

And with that stage comes all sorts of other details — bunting, flags, sound equipment and tens of thousands of chairs.

“This is something we are prepared for every four years. Obviously, we plan for it well in advance,” AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said. But still, she added, “it’s really a huge undertaking for us.”

Meanwhile, the Joint Congressional Committee on Inauguration Ceremonies will orchestrate it all — including the luncheon and the parade after the ceremony.

Already, the committee has printed about 240,000 tickets, stashing them in a secure location until they can be distributed.

The committee comprises six Members, three from the House and three from the Senate — though it’s the Senate Rules and Administration Committee that takes the lead.

Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) heads the committee, which also includes Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

But it’s the 10 or so staff members who will spend their nights and weekends putting together the ceremony and sacrificing much of their holiday vacation to such tasks as choosing a caterer and setting a schedule.

Already, they’ve begun working on the plans in their office — a trailer in the courtyard of the Russell Senate Office Building. Perhaps their most useful tool: a debriefing binder several inches think from past inauguration coordinators, detailing what works and what doesn’t.

Organizers will have one more resource than their predecessors. The Capitol Visitor Center, slated to open Dec. 2, could be used as a backup for inclement weather, since it is far bigger than any space inside the Capitol.

But such decisions have not yet been made.

“We’ve really begun organizing every aspect of the event,” said Feinstein spokesman Howard Gantman, who listed a battery of recent tasks such as “working with the Government Printing Office and experts on ticket security, printing them, getting them pre-counted and organizing them, ensuring people get their tickets, and organizing how people will be coming to the event in various gates.”

About $1.2 million has been set aside for the committee’s work, but Gantman said officials don’t expect to spend it all. Appropriators have also handed millions to the Capitol Police, the Architect of the Capitol and even the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department for various roles during the Inauguration.

Some of the work will have to wait until the new president is elected on Nov. 4, such as the music selection and decorations specific to that candidate’s state. And the new president will have his own inauguration committee, who will need to work with the Congressional committee and the Capitol Police on the plans.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer said the Capitol Police are well-versed in handling events like the inauguration. Right now, police officials are in the “embryonic stage” of planning, he said.

But some things are certain. Almost all Capitol Police officers will be on hand, joining the Secret Service, MPD and possibly a couple thousand out-of-state officers in securing the event. And when the next president is elected, the Capitol Police Board will consider any specific threats and how to handle them.

“We don’t see any deal breakers in this. We’re used to big events and we’ll see how it unfolds over the next few months,” Gainer said. “I won’t say it’s easy, but experience in the inauguration in general and in large events in part make this almost routine.”