If you have following the scandals out of Washington, you might have heard about the Hatch Act. Violations the Hatch Act seem to be underlying many of the scandals hitting the nightly news. The Hatch Act was first passed in 1939 in response to concerns about the political activities of federal employees. But even in 1939 the fear that government officials would use their position to future their political interests was not new. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson issued an executive order that federal workers should not “influence the votes of others, nor take part in the business of electioneering.” But federal employment and politics continued to be heavily intertwined throughout the nineteenth century. In 1883, The Pendleton Act named after Senator George H. Pendleton set out to protect federal employees from being fired for refusing to work on behalf of a candidate or donate to a campaign. Senator Pendleton said of the patronage system that, “the spoils system needs to be killed or it will kill the republic."
In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt tried to tackle the issue again with executive order 642. It barred federal employees from using their authority to interfere in elections, and from their taking part in political management or in political campaigns. The 1939 Hatch act attempted to combine both the Pendleton Act and Executive order 642 into comprehensive legislation for all federal bureaucracy. The act required that, “No officer or employee in the Executive Branch of the Federal government, or in any agency or department thereof, shall take any active part in political management or in political campaigns." The act was in part a response to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which had increased the number of federal employees and fears that Roosevelt might use these employees to consolidate his political power. Congress expanded The Hatch act in 1940 to extend to state and local governments who receive federal funds and in 1993, to restrict elected officials from making unsolicited recommendation on candidates for federal employment.
The Hatch Act permits federal employees to vote as they choose, join a political party and express opinions about candidates and issues. They can attend political rallies, contribute to political candidates and organizations, and give speeches at fundraisers as long as they do not make an appeal for donations. They can campaign for or against candidates and even hold office in political parties as long as their duties do not involve personal solicitation, the acceptance or receipt of political contributions. They can assist in voter registration drives; serve as delegates, alternates, or proxies at party conventions. They can serve as poll watchers, election judges, and clerks.
The Hatch Act prohibits them from engaging in political activity while on duty or when wearing a government uniform or insignia. They cannot engage is political activity while using a government vehicle or in any government office. They cannot engage in political activity while using government property, including computers, copiers, fax machines and telephones. They cannot wear political buttons or display anything signifying support or opposition to any party or candidate while on duty. They cannot solicit, accept, or receive political contributions from subordinates. They may not host fundraisers in their home. They may not use their official authority to influence or interfere with any election.
Modern technology has made complying with the Hatch Act more difficult. It becomes easy to answer your cell phone or an email from your office or in your government provided car. If these calls and emails are of a political nature, you may have just run afoul of the Hatch Act. Because of the Hatch Act, the Republican National Committee provided some government workers with Blackberries to handle their political activities. However, the prosecutor scandal has revealed that some in the Bush administration may have used their RNC email accounts and Blackberries for government activities, in order to avoid the presidential records act that would have preserved their communication, making it available for history and investigations.
The Office of Special Counsel, whose primary mission has been to enforce the Hatch Act, is opening an investigation into whether White house personnel, including Karl Rove’s deputies, engaged in political activities on government time and in government buildings. The Director of OSC Scott Bloch, a Bush appointee, said on CNN that the inquiry will be thorough and that he does not believe that White House senior adviser Karl Rove had acted improperly. CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, has suggested that this investigation is a cover up, to avoid an investigation run by a Democratic congress. CREW has called for Bloch to recuse himself from the investigation since he himself is under investigation by the inspector general of the White House’s Office of Personnel Management. The Evans-Novack report has suggested that Bloch initiated the investigation to insulate himself from his own scandals, that it would not look good for the Whitehouse to go after the guy investigating them. We will have to wait to see if the investigation by the Office of Special Counsel uncovers any real sins of this administration or will simply serve to cover up and minimize the administrations actions and insulated Bloch from future charges.