President Obama recently signed a law that removes District government employees from the federal Hatch Act, and also clears the way for federal employees, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and D.C. Board of Education members to become more active in city politics.
Under the Hatch Act Modernization Act of 2012, which takes effect Jan. 28, city employees won’t have to abide by federal restrictions on government employees’ political activities.
But District government employees still must abide by a separate 2010 District law limiting their politicking, including barring most from running in a partisan election or soliciting political donations from a candidate.
Violators face a fine of up to $2,000 and 180 days in prison, a more stringent penalty than they were subjected to under the Hatch Act.
The mayor and council are exempt from the local law, as are Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and D.C. Board of Education members. ANC commissioners and school board members were previously covered under the federal law restricting partisan activity, though some have ignored or challenged the restriction and prosecution for violating it was rare.
The change means that, for the first time in decades, ANC commissioners and school board members can legally run for higher office without worrying that they may have to give up their seat to avoid conflict with the Hatch Act.
The new federal law, which Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) helped to draft, also includes an exemption permitting federal employees who live in the District to “run for local office and otherwise to actively participate in local elections” so long as they do so as an independent.
Yet, the relaxed federal standards create some conflict and place additional burden on the local statue, according to concerns V. David Zvenyach, the council’s general counsel, outlined in a memo this week.
Though the local act bans District government employees from soliciting, accepting or receiving political contributions, Zvenyach said “arguably” the local act as written may only apply to District elections. That could open the door to city employees taking a more active role in congressional and presidential elections.
“The council may wish to consider clarifying its intent with regard to non-District elections,” Zvenyach wrote.
And without changes, Zvenyach notes federal employees will now have more freedom to participate in District elections than city employees.
For example, Zvenyach said starting next month, a federal employee will able to run for District office if they mount a candidacy as an independent. City employees are banned from running for any “partisan political office” regardless of party affiliation, Zvenyach said.
“Thus, a District employee is more restricted than the employee’s federal counterpart with regard to candidacy for office,” said Zvenyach, who noted federal employees can also now donate money to District political candidates who file as an independent.
Among other potential changes, Zvenyach said the council may want to reconsider the fairness of the penalties that will be assessed under local law and determine whether the Office of Campaign Finance or the city’s new ethics board is responsible for enforcing it.
Still, both Norton and Zvenyach say the changes to federal law are a victory for the city’s Home Rule efforts.
“The District is now treated like every other state in the nation, and has the ability to administer and enforce its own restrictions on its employees’ political activity,” Zvenyach said in his memo.