No, It's Not New for a Cabinet Secretary to Address a Political Convention

An RNC sign glows outside the Charlotte Convention Center’s Richardson Ballroom in Charlotte, N.C., August 24, 2020. (Travis Dove/Reuters)

Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan fumes about Mike Pompeo’s speech from last night and writes, “no secretary of state has ever spoken at a party convention. The Hatch Act forbids federal employees from taking part in political campaigns. Pompeo also violated his own guidance, sent to his underlings on Feb. 18 of this year. A bold-faced sentence in that memo read: ‘Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event.’”

But the Hatch Act doesn’t bar cabinet officials from speaking at political events. The rules state that a cabinet official “may not use the official title ‘Secretary’ when engaging in political activity, such as speaking at a political campaign event. However, a Cabinet secretary may use a general form of address, such as ‘The Honorable,’ when engaging in political activity, as such address does not identify his or her position.”

If it seemed a little odd that Pompeo began his speech by declaring, “I have a big job . . . as Susan’s husband, and Nick’s dad,” it’s because this is a way of saying, “I’m the Secretary of State, but I can’t say that out loud. I know that, and you know that, but to keep in line with the Hatch Act, I have to pretend that I’m just some ordinary citizen, speaking to you from the roof of the King David Hotel, looking out on the Old City, talking about how amazingly the administration’s foreign policy is going.” Kaplan is correct that it is absurd. But Pompeo’s speech was in line with a law that draws these sorts of absurd distinctions.

In 2012, six cabinet secretaries addressed the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte: Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, and Karen Mills, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration . . . which yes, was elevated to Cabinet-level in the Obama years. In fact, unlike the other cabinet secretaries, the screen behind Mills specifically identified her as “Administrator Small Business Administration” . . . but it didn’t use the word ‘Secretary,’ so maybe it’s not a violation of the Hatch Act.

Karen Mills, speaking at the 2012 Democratic convention.

(I’m willing to cut those convention organizers some slack on this. How many convention attendees would know who Karen Mills was without her title?)

I suppose some will argue that the difference between a Secretary of State and other cabinet positions is as sharp and distinct as that of night and day, and that other cabinet officials speaking at conventions is fine and represents no serious breach of ethics, norms, or law, but a Secretary of State doing the same is a terrible outrage and de facto crime against good governance.

If people want to argue that cabinet secretaries shouldn’t speak at conventions, they’re free to so. Pompeo’s critics could try to amend the Hatch Act to specifically bar cabinet officials from speaking at party conventions, but I think it would probably get struck down on First Amendment grounds. You can’t tell someone they can’t speak at all about politics because they have a government job.

But Donald Trump and Pompeo didn’t invent cabinet secretaries speaking at conventions; last night, Pompeo just did it with a more dramatic backdrop than past cabinet secretaries.

Separately . . . isn’t a speech from a cabinet secretary just about the least persuasive choice for a political convention? “I know it will shock you, but it turns out I think the guy who gave me this position is doing a terrific job and deserves four more years. In fact, I can see no mistakes or errors on the part of the man who could fire me at any time.”

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