White House postpones annual congressional picnic

The White House will not hold its annual congressional picnic in June, according to sources familiar with the planning.

The annual event, traditionally held for Senate and House members and their families, might happen in September instead. The administration blamed automatic spending cuts for canceling tours of the White House, but a source close to the situation said delaying the bipartisan, bicameral picnic was “schedule-related, not sequester-related.” 

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It’s unclear what factors will determine whether the White House will hold the event in September. But even if the picnic happens then, fewer children will be able to attend because school will be back in session. That fact has irritated people who have attended in the past.

Over the last week, frustration on Capitol Hill mounted as to why the White House was taking so long to make the call. Sources speculated that sequestration politics was at play.

As of Monday evening, the White House had not made an official announcement on the picnic.

Lawmakers however, received a notice on Monday afternoon from the White House Office of Legislative Affairs: “The White House Congressional Picnic for Members of Congress and their families will not take place in June this year. We are hopeful that we will be able to reschedule this event for September.”

When the White House canceled the public tours earlier this year, some lawmakers proposed that the administration make cuts elsewhere, such as limiting the parties thrown for Congress and members of the media.

At that time, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the White House’s decision “just silly,” noting that tours of Capitol Hill would continue.

The matter came up in a rare closed-door meeting that President Obama held with members of the House GOP Conference in mid-March. 

Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), chairwoman of the House Administration Committee, asked why Obama ended the White House tours in light of the sequester instead of the annual Christmas Party or congressional picnic.

The president said the Secret Service didn’t want to have to furlough staff and opted instead to cut non-essential tasks.

The White House Congressional Picnic historically has taken place in mid-to-late June, when lawmakers’ children are out of school and families have more flexibility to make the trek to D.C. 

Recently, however, some complained that they had not yet heard from the White House — and that making a last-minute plane reservation to the nation’s capital is pricey. 

The White House this year has made efforts to reach out to Congress in order to move an ambitious agenda, but the handling of this event hasn’t enhanced the so-called charm offensive. 

“What could have been an occasion for smoothing personal relations could end up making them worse,” Claremont-McKenna Professor Jack Pitney said, noting the event has served as a way for members and families to cross party lines and get to know each other. 

Pitney explained: “In recent decades, members in Congress basically live in social silos where they only associate with people of the same party. This is one occasion in which they can break out of their social silos.” 

Amid the partisan rancor of Washington, the picnic has been a rare event where lawmakers and White House officials can don Hawaiian shirts and leis and let their guards down.

The White House has posted videos and pictures of previous picnics, during which the president encouraged lawmakers to “dunk” senior administration officials in the “dunk tank” — including former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, former communications director Robert Gibbs and former budget director Peter Orszag. 

In remarks made at the June 27, 2012, picnic, Obama expressed thanks to members of Congress and “most importantly to their families because Michelle reminds me every day how difficult it is to be married to a politician. And the sacrifices that all of you make — the birthday parties that get missed, or the soccer games that you’re late to, the travel that keeps you away from your loved ones — all of that obviously is in service of our country, and you guys are serving alongside those of us who hold elective office. So we’re thrilled that you have at least one day where you got a chance to be together in Washington and nobody is arguing.”