June 18, 2019

Udall, Leahy, Van Hollen Demand Answers about President’s Fourth of July Event

Appropriations committee members fear longstanding non-partisan event will become a de facto campaign rally, seek information about plans and funding

WASHINGTON – Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee overseeing the Department of the Interior’s budget, Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, called on Department of the Interior (DOI) Secretary David Bernhardt to inform the Interior Appropriations subcommittee of the president’s reported Fourth of July plans and how the additional costs will be funded. 

“We are deeply troubled that the president’s involvement at the event will turn the longstanding, non-partisan celebration into a de facto campaign rally conducted at taxpayer expense that will serve to further divide rather than unify the nation,” wrote the senators. “We are also concerned that the decision to expand the event to include a potential Presidential address will require the National Park Service to divert resources from other priorities of the National Mall or other national park system units at a time when it is facing significant budgetary pressures to address its $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog and accommodate record-setting visitation.” 

“We believe that it is critical that your department is taking the necessary steps to carefully manage taxpayer funds and to ensure that the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall remains a non-partisan event focused on national unity and pride,” the senators wrote.

The Trump administration has announced plans for President Trump to address the nation at the Lincoln Memorial during the annual Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall, a departure from the longstanding non-partisan nature of this event. As the Washington Post and others have reported, the changes will “bring a host of new security and logistical challenges.” 

During a recent hearing, Udall questioned Bernhardt on the president’s plans to overhaul the 4th of July Celebration. Udall said he was “deeply concerned that the president is planning to take a nonpartisan celebration and turn it into some kind of de-facto political rally…Spending taxpayer dollars on political activity violates appropriations law.” In response to questioning from Udall, Bernhardt committed to be fully transparent regarding the details of the event, and pledged that he would review event details personally to ensure compliance with appropriations law, including Sections 716 and 718 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act (P.L. 116-6) which preclude the use of taxpayer funds by Federal agencies and contractors for publicity or propaganda purposes.

Udall, Leahy, and Van Hollen are seeking responses to a series of specific questions regarding the event by no later than June 28, 2019. 

The full text of the letter can be found below and HERE.

Dear Secretary Bernhardt:

We write to follow up on a recent exchange from the Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies’ fiscal year 2020 budget hearing for the U.S. Department of the Interior (Department) regarding the President’s participation in the upcoming Fourth of July celebration in Washington, D.C. 

We are deeply troubled that the President’s involvement at the event will turn the longstanding, non-partisan celebration into a de facto campaign rally conducted at taxpayer expense that will serve to further divide rather than unify the nation.   We are also concerned that the decision to expand the event to include a potential Presidential address will require the National Park Service to divert resources from other priorities of the National Mall or other national park system units at a time when it is facing significant budgetary pressures to address its $12 billion deferred maintenance backlog and accommodate record-setting visitation.

During the hearing, you committed to be fully transparent regarding the details of the event and pledged that you would review event details personally to ensure compliance with appropriations law, including Sections 716 and 718 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act (P.L. 116-6) which preclude the use of taxpayer funds by Federal agencies and contractors for publicity or propaganda purposes.  The U.S. Government Accountability Office notes that these provisions specifically prohibit the use of appropriations for: (1) covert propaganda: (2) purely partisan activities; and (3) self-aggrandizing activities.”

In light of these assurances and the announcement on June 5, 2019, that the President plans to speak from the Lincoln Memorial as part of the event, as well as subsequent media reports about potential logistics, we respectfully request that you respond to the following questions by no later than June 28, 2019:

1. What is the nature of the expected event (i.e., presidential address, concert, other performances, etc.)?  Will the event be open to the public through a general admission process, or will it be ticketed? 

2. What entity is charged with the lead planning, organizing, coordinating, and execution responsibilities for the event?   Who at the Department is in charge of planning, organizing, coordinating and executing the Department’s responsibilities?

3. What impacts will the Presidential address and/or any additional events have on public access to the National Mall, including transportation and road closures, on the Fourth of July?  How and when will these expected impacts be communicated to the public?

4. In Fiscal Year 2019, Congress has provided more than $6 million in funding through Public Law 115-245 and Public Law 116-6 to continue the longstanding Capitol Concerts series, including the planned Fourth of July concert at the U.S. Capitol, which is partially funded by the National Park Service.  Will the proposed Presidential event in any way impact the timing, logistics or program for the Capitol Concerts event? Please specify what, if any, changes are anticipated.  

5. Will the addition of the additional July Fourth event with the President have any impact on any other previously scheduled events or permits issued for the National Mall?  If so, please describe potential impacts.

6. What is the estimated total cost to the Department to plan and execute an expanded Fourth of July event on the National Mall?  Please include costs borne directly by the Department as well as by contractors, including security and production costs.

7. How does the anticipated cost for the 2019 Fourth of July celebration compare with costs borne by the Department for the 2017 and 2018 celebrations?   Please provide total costs for both of these previous fiscal years.

8. Does the Department expect to accept, use or recognize financial donations or other in-kind contributions from corporate sponsors or other non-Federal entities to help defray costs for the 2019 event?  If so, please provide details.

9. The Washington Post reported on July 12, 2019, that Administration officials are considering adding a second fireworks display to the celebration in addition to expanding the existing fireworks display.   What is the estimated total cost that the National Park Service expects to spend on fireworks for the 2019 Fourth of July celebration, and how does that amount compare with costs for the 2017 and 2018 celebrations?

10. If there are any ticketed components, who will distribute the tickets?  How will they be distributed, and who will assume the costs of managing the ticketing distribution system?

11. What is the role of other Federal agencies in planning and executing the event?  Will other agencies participate as part of the expected program (i.e., color guards, military bands, etc.)?

12. What are the estimated costs to plan and execute the event to other Federal, State and local agencies, including the District of Columbia government?  Who will pay for these costs, and how do they compare to the previous two fiscal years?

13. How will the National Park Service pay for expanded Fourth of July celebrations in fiscal year 2019, given that no additional funds were sought as part of your budget request or provided by Congress?  Will the event require the reduction of any other services or programs at national park system units, including the National Mall and Memorial Parks?  If so, what services or programs will be affected?

14. What specific steps have you or other officials at the Department taken to ensure that all facets of the proposed event are non-partisan in nature and comply with restrictions on the use of Federal funds for publicity and propaganda purposes as noted above, as well as other restrictions on political activity such as the Hatch Act (5 U.S.C. §?7321 et. seq.)? What communications, if any, have you or other officials at the Department had with the White House and other Federal agencies to ensure that all aspects of the event comply with these requirements?

In conclusion, we believe that it is critical that your Department is taking the necessary steps to carefully manage taxpayer funds and to ensure that the Fourth of July celebration on the National Mall remains a non-partisan event focused on national unity and pride.  If you have any questions, please contact us at (202) 224-7363.  We look forward to the receiving a prompt response from you on these important questions. 

Sincerely,

###