The White House Press Briefings in recent days have seen Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre repeatedly invoke the Hatch Act to avoid answering questions. In this article, we provide an overview of the Hatch Act, its applicability to the role of White House Press Secretary, and why it matters.
What is the Hatch Act?
Let’s first look at what constitutes a violation of the Hatch Act. According to the US Office of Special Counsel, this law “restricts the political activity of individuals principally employed by” the federal government. Specifically, federal employees may not:
“Engage in political activity – i.e., activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group – while the employee is on duty, in any federal room or building, while wearing a uniform or official insignia, or using any federally owned or leased vehicle.”
Political activity here is defined as “activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group.” It’s important to note that the Hatch Act does not apply to personal opinions, as long as those opinions are NOT tied to a political candidate or political party.
“The Hatch Act does not prohibit employees at any time, including when they are at work or on duty, from expressing their personal opinions about issues, even if politically charged, such as healthcare reform, gun control, or abortion, because such expressions do not constitute political activity. However, such expressions would constitute political activity if tied to candidates or political parties.”
Comments for or against political candidates AND political parties are off limits when it comes to the Hatch Act and, for the White House Press Secretary, that means no campaigning or trying to impact the outcome of the election from the podium.
Has KJP Violated the Hatch Act?
While KJP, unlike her predecessor, has successfully observed the line on political candidates, she appears to frequently violate the law when it comes to political parties. For example:
“The Inflation Reduction Act is…going to lower energy costs. These are real wins that we have delivered for the American people — that congressional Democrats have delivered for the American people, where Republicans, their plan — their plan is to take that away. They want — they want to take away lowering costs on healthcare. They want to take away lowering costs on energy.”
“And the thing to remember and I think the question to ask — or the thing to actually really think about here is what Republicans are trying to do. When you look at these lawsuits across the country, they’re coming from Republicans. And Republicans want to take away this essential need...”
Or even this, which was part of her written comments for Tuesday’s press briefing:
“If there — if there are enough votes in Congress, the first piece of legislation the President is going to sign or he will send to the — to the Hill, I should say, next year, in the new — in the new Congress will once again make Roe the law of the land.”
“If there are enough votes in Congress” sounds innocent until you think about it for more than a couple of seconds. She is coercing a political outcome with the promise of legislation. Curiously, when questions about her written statement later in the briefing, she again invoked the Hatch Act.
Q: “I’m trying to get specific. How many more votes does the President think he needs in the Senate to codify Roe? Is it 51, 52?”
KJP: “I’m not going to get ahead of this election or talk about this election. So I’m going — this was a political speech and not going to weigh into any specific numbers.”
Q: “You did say if there are enough votes in Congress, the President would send, as his first bill in the 118th Congress, a bill to codify Roe. You can’t say how many is enough?”
KJP: “No, I can’t.”
Makes perfect sense.
Does It Matter?
The White House Press Secretary campaigning from the podium provides Democrats with an asymmetrical advantage in the coming election. Making promises of what “this president” will do if the Democrats get enough votes in the legislature affects every congressional race in the country.
Consider the press coverage that the White House gets, with hoards of reporters following every move and word and, because of the unity of the establishment, quickly carrying their message around the world. The opposing party has no similar platform or coverage.
It is for this reason that we have the Hatch Act in the first place – so that the incumbent party cannot use the power of the Presidency or other government authority to impact the outcome of the election. Of course, addressing the overt Hatch Act violations of this White House Press Secretary requires someone actually holding her accountable.
So it matters; but, in reality, it’s likely moot.
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