Let’s say you decide tomorrow that you want to attend the inauguration the week after next. And let’s assume that, like most Americans, you do not have any political ‘in’ with the new administration or any of the congressional offices handing tickets out to donors and supporters. What are your options?
So far as I can tell, you’ve got three. If your elected representatives have any not yet allocated, you could get on their lists—but it’s a longshot. Second, you may still be able to buy a set of four tickets from the inaugural committee at a reported cost of $50,000. The third option: Score one off of Craigslist, from someone who obtained tickets legitimately, at a fraction of the cost, though still probably hundreds of dollars or more.
So guess which one Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) wants to ban? Legislation she re-introduced this week (S. 60, see p. 21) would punish the sale, and possibly the purchase, of inaugural tickets with criminal fines and up to one year in federal prison.
The logic seems to be that selling a ticket to attend this historic event is so wrongful that it must be punished severely—a year in prison is no walk in the park—unless, that is, the seller is the inaugural committee, in which case anything goes, even at $50,000 a pop.
This double standard should be a good clue that selling inaugural tickets isn’t an appropriate target of a criminal prohibition. The criminal law is supposed to focus on actions that actually harm society, not just those things that Members of Congress dislike. That’s a misuse of the criminal law, and it makes the law less effective as a system to communicate society’s fundamental values.
New criminal offenses like this deserve deliberation and scrutiny by Congress and should not be fast-tracked. That means hearings, mark-ups, and the other tools that Members of Congress use to ensure that the result of the lawmaking process is good policy, not knee-jerk criminalization.
Any Members who supports sound criminal law, whatever their view on the underlying merits of Feinstein’s proposal, should be willing to slow this bill down to make sure it receives the attention that new criminal offenses always deserve.