Making White House Guest Lists Transparent

Transparency in government is a public good, because it helps us understand what government is doing, including what favors its officials dole out to private citizens. Being invited to a state dinner is of no small significance. For the hundred or so citizens not in public office who are invited, it is not only a memorable event but a boost to one’s reputation and an advertisement of one’s proximity to power. But for the rest of us, learning who goes is one way to understand what the President cares about and who his core supporters are.

President Obama’s guest lists are sadly much less transparent than those of President George W. Bush. Other than government officials they list the affiliations only of journalists. Compare the guest list to President Obama’s  state dinner for Francois Hollande to George Bush’s list for the dinner for Queen Elizabeth II.  (I have not studied the lists of all state dinners, but I have no reason to believe these are atypical).

What could be the reason for this selective information? Unfortunately, only cynical explanations are plausible. Obama wants to downplay the many rich business people who are invited, most of whom are likely donors or indeed bundlers for his campaign or his party.  A state dinner where such invitees bulk large on the guest list is out of keeping with his image of being a tribune for the people against the interests of the one percent. But trumpeting the ample representation of the fourth estate advances the administration’s agenda, because the press influences the success of that agenda.

And this cynical ploy has worked. Most press stories about the guests emphasize the names members of the press would likely quickly recognize, like actors and other celebrities. Such  coverage provides an aura that the President does like, that of a celebrity surrounded by other celebrities—one who is above the grubby business of politics. These stories do not mention the business people or donors or make any invidious comparisons to President Clinton and the sleepovers at the Lincoln bedroom.

Here is a modest proposal: The press should show it cannot be bought off and instead do its basic job by finding the affiliations of all members of the guest list for any state dinner. In this internet age, it is the work of an hour or two. Then add in italics the affiliations of all of those that the White House has chosen not to identify. Others could then use the data to make charts and help the public understand the connections that move this administration and others in the future.  Whom I invite to dine with me shows where my heart is.  It is no different for the President, except that his business is our business.

John O. McGinnis is the George C. Dix Professor in Constitutional Law at Northwestern University. His recent book, Accelerating Democracy was published by Princeton University Press in 2012. McGinnis is also the co-author with Mike Rappaport of Originalism and the Good Constitution published by Harvard University Press in 2013 . He is a graduate of Harvard College, Balliol College, Oxford, and Harvard Law School. He has published in leading law reviews, including the Harvard, Chicago, and Stanford Law Reviews and the Yale Law Journal, and in journals of opinion, including National Affairs and National Review.

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Comments

  1. nobody.really says

    I guess the public should be entitled to know who attends state dinners – and perhaps who is invited. Similarly, I guess the public should be entitled to know who is spending the night in the Lincoln bedroom. I share the suspicion that these invitations are granted as a way to curry favor with the rich and powerful.

    That said, I can’t think of a more benign kind of influence pedaling than this. Think of all the forms of public largesse that presidents can bestow. I far prefer that the president curry favor by granting dinner invitations than by granting mineral rights or exemptions from environmental regulations or pardons.

    But doesn’t it seem a bit naïve to think that if the president wants to keep his relationship with someone a secret, he’d invite that person to attend a state dinner?

    More to the point, it is sound and workable public policy to try to police the president’s contacts? Should the president have freedom of confidential association? Is the public better served if we make the president disclose everyone he talks to – thus causing the president to refrains from soliciting the opinions and insights of people with whom the president does not want to associate publically? Or is the public better served if the president can solicit a broad range of opinions confidentially, and thus is unimpeded in reaching out beyond the Washington echo chamber?

    • John O. McGinnisJohn McGinnis says

      I largely agree with this comment, but do not believe it undermines my point. I wholly agree that are many worse forms of corruption than an invitation to a White House dinner. Indeed, I do not
      regard such an invitation generally as a form of corruption. I also agree we should not require the President to disclose the identity of everyone to whom he speaks. Sometimes there is a need for confidentiality. My point here is simply that the administration should be forthcoming with the affiliations of those attending so we can get a better sense of the administration and its connections. That is an aspect of government transparency. The Obama administration, I fear, is promoting a misleading image by selectively eliding information about attendees that previous administrations have routinely disclosed and the press shows no interest in trying to connect the dots. And disclosing the affiliations of attendees at a public event like a state dinner raises no questions of confidentiality.

  2. Ed Rector says

    Well, of course, if Prof. McGinnis really wanted to know the employments and/or affiliations of the minimally-identified WH guests he could spend some of his own time on Google and find out most of them.

    And if he thought BO was shielding some big Dem contributors he could easily cross-reference the very public data bases of the National Election Commission.

    Is this really a scandal??

    • John O. McGinnisJohn McGinnis says

      The practice of the Obama administration with respect to guests list for a state dinner is not a scandal and my post did not suggest it was. But it is not good government either, because good government is transparent government. The Obama administration ended a previous practice that made it much easier to figure out the significance of who attended an important event. Of course, I could find out all the affiliations but that would take time. The Obama administration’s change in practice raises information costs for no reason and attempts to create a misleading picture by providing some affiliations and not others.

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