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Critics Decry Looser Rules For Inauguration Fundraising

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A week from Monday, President Obama is to take his public oath of office for a second term.

The inauguration will be marked by celebratory balls and other festivities, sponsored by the privately financed Presidential Inaugural Committee. The first Obama inauguration had strict fundraising rules. But this year, the rules have been loosened, and critics wonder what happened to the president's old pledge to change the way Washington works.

Here's how candidate Barack Obama put it during a 2008 debate: "We're going to have to change the culture in Washington so that lobbyists and special interests aren't driving the process and your voices aren't being drowned out."

For the inaugural committee in 2009, the fundraising limit was $50,000 per individual; no corporate money was allowed. Four years later, the maximum contribution is $1 million, and corporations are being solicited.

Some of the corporate donors have federal contracts or regulatory issues pending in Washington. This year's official disclosure so far is just a list of names, minus the amounts given or any identifying information.

Committee officials point out that their fundraising guidelines are still tougher than the law. They declined an interview request.

But to Robert Weissman, president of the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen, the inaugural money chase is just one more disappointment. He says that when it comes to political money, "there is precious little to show from the Obama White House."

The repeated letdowns are all the worse "because you have a president and Cabinet-level officials who express support for campaign reform measures. They just don't do anything," he says.

That includes things such as overhauling the dysfunctional Federal Election Commission, which is charged with enforcing the law, or exploring ways to deal with the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling and other court decisions that opened the doors for secret and corporate money in politics.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in a written statement that Obama has done more to limit the influence of special interests than previous administrations. He especially pointed to new ethics rules that limit movement between government and lobbying.

Reform advocates do give the administration credit for that.

Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center, a longtime lobbyist on these issues, says she would give the president a solid B on the ethics standards but probably an F on political money.

"To me, the inauguration committee decision was Exhibit A of that pragmatism: 'Hey, a few of the people on the outside will criticize us for it, but in the end it makes our job so much easier, and the American people don't really care. So let's just do it,' " she says.

She says the administration has repeatedly erred by pushing health care, immigration and other issues ahead of the campaign finance agenda.

"You can't change the power structure in Washington without spending political capital," she says. "And the power structure in Washington at its fundamental base is about the money that is being brought to bear through lobbying and through campaign contributions."

The history of Obama's ambivalence on political money goes back to 2008, when he was the first major-party candidate to reject public financing for the general election. He spent three-quarters of a billion dollars in that election and more than $1 billion in the last one.

Historian Kurt Hohenstein, the author of a history of campaign finance laws called Coining Corruption, says big budgets pay for microtargeting, instead of campaigns that address big issues.

"The money makes that happen. You can pinpoint and target and completely overwhelm an opponent, or overwhelm the voters," he says.

Hohenstein says voters increasingly don't like it. But it's the people in Washington who have the power to change it, or not.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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