For the first time ever, many young people are saying “Get off my lawn!”
Presidents of both political parties have delivered convention speeches from the White House before. In 2008, Republican George W. Bush delivered his convention speech from the White House endorsing his party’s nominee John McCain. In 1940, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt also delivered his own convention speech from the White House, although most Americans at that time heard it on the radio rather than watching on television.
2020 was a bit different, though, because the entire Republican Convention was held from the White House. House Oversight Committee Democrats believe this violated the Hatch Act of 1939, a law which limits political activities by federal employees while acting in their official capacity — which, at the White House, they generally are.
The problem is, the actual Hatch Act is extremely vague about exactly what constitutes a violation. The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is supposed to prosecute violations, but it’s entirely up to their discretion unless an action is specified in law as a violation.
What the bill does
The Our Lawn Act would ban the use of federal property for political conventions or political fundraising events. This would specifically include the White House. It would also have banned Trump’s supposed second choice location for his convention: the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Any violation could be punished by a fine up to $50,000 or up to five years in prison. While the legislative text says the punishment could fall on either the “candidate or the authorized committee of the candidate,” in practice it would rarely if ever be the actual candidate themselves who would get punished.
What supporters say
Supporters argue that the distinction between a president acting in their governmental head of state capacity and their partisan political capacity should be clearer in the law.
“The White House lawn belongs to Americans — not to a politician or political party, no matter who occupies the Oval Office. The disturbing trend of the Trump administration using public resources for private gain only continues with his latest stunt,” Rep. Phillips said in a press release. “The Our Lawn Act isn’t about protecting a patch of grass — it’s about sending a message to the world that we are a nation of laws.
“Neither party is immune to corruption — remember, the Hatch Act was originally designed to clean up Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic Party. We need laws with teeth to ensure that no president, Republican or Democrat, uses the White House grounds for political means,” Rep. Phillips continued. “Let’s get campaigning off the People’s lawn and into a venue where it belongs.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that the controversy was much ado about nothing, because there really was no ethical conflict at play during the convention.
“While Trump has shown little respect for norms, he would not be the first president to use the White House — or even the Oval Office — as the backdrop for a signature campaign event,” opinion columnist Karen Tumulty wrote for the Washington Post. Her op-ed was written shortly before the Our Lawn Act was introduced, but was opining on the logic behind the legislation.
“In December 1979, Jimmy Carter deemed that a more lavish announcement would not be appropriate amid a crisis in which 50 Americans were being held hostage in Tehran — so he declared that he was running for reelection in a somber nine-minute ceremony in the East Room… A little more than four years later, Reagan himself used the Oval Office as the backdrop for his reelection announcement on Jan. 29, 1984.”
“So would it be all that much of a break with precedent for Trump to accept his party’s nomination somewhere on the White House grounds?” Tumulty asked. “I, for one, think the White House makes more sense than anywhere else and would nod to the fact that caution should be keeping everyone at home during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Odds of passage
The bill has attracted 12 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
Odds of passage are low in the Republican-controlled Senate.