The Hatch Act would get some tweaking under a bill that won unanimous Senate approval last week.
The bill would allow state and local government employees to run for partisan political office, for example, and the Merit Systems Protection Board would get more options for dealing with violations of the act, which generally bars federal civil servants from partisan politicking. Currently, the board’s only option is to fire offending feds unless its members unanimously agree to some lesser penalty.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, now goes to the House, where Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., has introduced similar legislation.
The 1939 Hatch Act, (officially known, in case you were wondering, as “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities”), is seen both by Republicans and Democrats as needing a refresh, although the two sides differ on particulars. The status quo is “clear as mud,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., declared at a hearing last year of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he chairs. (Cummings is the top Democrat.) So far, however, Issa has not introduced any legislation.
Also urging change is Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, the agency charged with Hatch Act enforcement. At the law’s best, it keeps people in political power from abusing their positions, Lerner wrote in a New York Times op-ed. At its worst, she said, it prevents would-be candidates in state and local races from running for office because their jobs are in some trivial way tied to federal funding.
How trivial? Well, in one instance, a Pennsylvania policeman wanted to run for school board, but was told by Lerner’s office that the law wouldn’t allow it. His bomb-sniffing dog, after all, was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.