In a time of severe budget constraints, two factors explain why the White House can afford to welcome more than 30,000 people Monday for the 135th annual Easter Egg Roll: corporate sponsors and souvenir eggs.
Nearly a century ago, Congress empowered the National Park Service, which oversees the Easter Egg Roll, to accept private donations for its operations.
So when her twin boys came home from kindergarten and told her the Easter Egg Roll might be canceled, Victoria Knight-McDowell, owner and chief executive of Pine Bros. Softish Throat Drops, wrote a check for $25,000 to make sure that would not happen.
“It just didn’t sit right. It’s been such a wonderful White House tradition,” Knight-McDowell said in a phone interview from California. While McDowell and her family have never been to the event, she said she wanted to make sure it could take place. “We like nostalgia. We love tradition.”
The Easter Egg Roll is an elaborate affair — people from all 50 states and the District have received tickets through an online lottery and will enter the South Lawn in stages from 7:30 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. This year the Obamas have chosen the theme of “Be Healthy, Be Active, Be You!” and the event will feature not only egg rolling but celebrities, live music, sports activities, cooking stations, interpretive dance performances and storytelling.
Commemorative eggs — emblazoned with the Obamas’ signatures and made from sustainably harvested American hardwoods — come in several colors and sell for $7.99. Customers who buy the full set for $29.99 receive a bonus egg depicting Bo, the first family’s dog, and attendees each receive a free souvenir egg as they leave the South Lawn.
National Park Foundation spokeswoman Marjorie Taft Hall, whose group handles private contributions for the egg roll and also sells the commemorative eggs, wrote in an e-mail that the sales of the eggs “largely cover the cost of the Easter Egg Roll. As in past administrations, we are also accepting private donations to cover any additional costs.” She said the foundation does not disclose how much it receives from outside groups or which ones donate.
Knight-McDowell, who acquired Pine Bros. nearly a decade ago while she was running the cold-remedy company Airborne with her husband, Rider, said she checked online and found out that the prospect of a government shutdown posed a threat to holding the event.
She had a public relations representative contact the White House last month with a donation offer. A National Park Foundation staffer informed them that the maximum cash contribution the group could accept was $25,000, and the Carmel, Calif.-based company sent a check via FedEx the next day.
The key congressional action that ensured the egg roll would come off — passing a continuing resolution to keep the government running through the end of the fiscal year — took place late last month, and President Obama signed the measure Tuesday.
Ironically, the annual Easter Egg Roll came about as a reaction to Congress. While informal egg-roll gatherings took place at the White House during the Lincoln administration, the games took place on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol in the aftermath of the Civil War. Congress outlawed using the area for games in 1876, to protect the Capitol grounds, which prompted President Rutherford B. Hayes to hold an egg roll on the White House grounds two years later.
And the reason the Easter Egg Roll can be held but White House tours are still canceled? The Secret Service cannot accept outside financing. As a result of the mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration, it does not have the funds to perform background checks.
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