Dems Seek to Ease Penalties for Federal Workers That Engage in Partisan Politics

The Hatch Act of 1939 places restrictions on federal workers engaging in political activities. The law came about after complaints that federal workers were helping collect votes for the Democratic Party.

If Democrats have their way, federal workers will have much more leeway to engage in partisan political action.

Democrats in the House and Senate proposed legislation that would ease some penalties that federal workers face for engaging in partisan political activities such as campaigns or other overt actions.

Under current law, employees who violate the Hatch Act are required to either be removed or suspended for at least 30 days without pay. Suspensions can only take place on a unanimous vote from the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Under legislation introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) in the Senate and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) in the House, the Board would have flexibility to choose from a longer list of penalties, some of which are not as harsh as removal or suspension. These include “reduction in grade, debarment from federal employment for a period not to exceed five years, suspension, reprimand or an assessment of a civil penalty not to exceed $1,000.”

Akaka argues that this change is needed to address what he said were “minor violations” of the law.

“Under the law, it is possible that a federal employee could lose his or her job for inadvertently sending an email at work containing improper political content or hanging a picture on his or her wall during a campaign season,” Akaka said. “My bill would amend these provisions of the Hatch Act to allow the Merit Systems Protection Board, which adjudicates Hatch Act complaints in the federal government, to impose a range of penalties, from termination to a reprimand, depending on the nature of the offense involved.”

Cummings agreed that there should be “punishments less severe than firing for minor violations.”

Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), the only Republican on either the House or Senate bill, said that the bill is needed to better protect federal employees.

“If we can update the Hatch Act to provide for greater flexibility for public workers while still ensuring the legitimacy of our politics, there should be no reason for anyone to oppose such a change,” Lee said.

The Hatch Modernization Act, S. 2170 and H.R. 4152, would give state and local employees the freedom to run for partisan elective office, something they are currently not entitled to do. It would also treat District of Columbia employees the same way that state and local workers are treated for purposes of enforcement; today, D.C. employees are treated as federal workers.

Sponsors of the Senate bill are Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), while the House bill is sponsored by Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

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