Scott A. Coffina
is a former associate counsel to President George W. Bush and former assistant U.S. attorney now in private practice in Philadelphia
President Obama recently became the new presidential champion for trips to battleground states in the year before an election.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama's recent visit to Scranton was his 56th such trip of 2011. It was his eighth visit to Pennsylvania this year, and the 16th of his presidency.
Unfortunately, the taxpayers are paying for what amount to campaign stump speeches under the guise of "official" events promoting the president's jobs bill. Consider his remarks in Scranton.
At this rally, er, speech, the president trashed Republicans for "blocking" his proposed American Jobs Act, while touting his own accomplishments, such as recent announcements on mortgage refinancing, student loans, and job training for veterans. He even reminded his friendly audience that "since I've taken office, I've cut your taxes."
For any president running for reelection, there is not always a clear line between politics and policy, and he is entitled to a degree of deference in classifying his public events. Nevertheless, federal law prohibits the use of taxpayer money for political activity, which is defined as activity directed toward the success or failure of a candidate for partisan political office.
Recently, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel issued guidance for classifying political and official activities, and the Department of Justice wrote an authoritative legal opinion in 1982 that is specific to the allocation of costs for presidential travel. The DOJ opinion states that, generally, if the purpose of an event is to promote the partisan aims of a candidate, then expenses are political in character. The OSC also considers the motivation for an event, as well as the nature of the official's remarks, among other factors.
Under these standards, Obama's jobs speech in Scranton raises serious questions. For instance:
Were these events - or any of the 56 events in battleground states in 2011 - intended to further the president's reelection campaign?
Did the idea for these trips originate with the reelection campaign, or with the White House policy office responsible for generating support for the jobs bill?
Was the trip to Scranton scheduled before the three political fund-raisers the president attended in New York City that same day, or was the "official" event tacked onto a political trip?
Why did the White House choose to visit the political battleground of Pennsylvania to deliver this message, as opposed to, say, New York, where the president was already going to be that day?
In January, the OSC issued a report that was highly critical of the Bush administration for what it determined were misclassified official activities by high-level officials during the 2006 election cycle.
In one case, the OSC cited a grant announcement as improperly classified as an official event because of evidence that it was held in California in order to help two candidates running for reelection. It disputed the classification of another trip as official because the participating administration official understood that she was helping an incumbent, even though the OSC leveled no criticism of how the event itself was conducted.
Finally, the OSC criticized another "official" event because the participating cabinet official acknowledged the House member in whose district it occurred (who was in attendance) as "a strong and effective advocate for your interests in the Congress" - not unlike Obama's describing Bob Casey, up for reelection next year but absent from the Scranton event, as a "great senator."
Can the White House distinguish the president's "official" jobs speeches from the Bush administration events that were criticized? The OSC, the Federal Election Commission, or the House Oversight Committee ought to find out, before more taxpayer money is misspent.