Both chambers of Congress are taking steps toward a potential first overhaul in nearly two decades of the rules restricting political activities by federal employees, beginning with a planned vote today in a Senate committee.
A Hatch Act reform bill introduced in March with bipartisan support is scheduled for approval in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The Hatch Act restricts the political activities of federal employees, particularly while on duty. Certain restrictions also apply to state and local government employees who work in programs financed by the federal government. The law was last revised in 1993 when several restrictions were eased for most employees, but tighter limits were kept for positions involving security, law enforcement and certain other responsibilities.
The pending legislation is based on recommendations made last year by the federal Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the law. For federal employees, the bill would allow for a wider range of penalties when violations are found. Currently, firing is mandatory unless the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears such cases, unanimously decides to impose at least a 30-day suspension instead. The bill would allow for penalties as mild as a reprimand.
The measure also would allow affected state and local employees to run for partisan office and would bring employees of the District of Columbia under the policies applying to state and local governments, rather than those applying to the federal government.
On the House side, a hearing is planned for May 16 in a subcommittee of the counterpart Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said at a committee meeting last week that he favors repealing “unintended consequences” of the law, including the candidacy limit on covered state and local employees.
Issa said he also is interested in other Hatch Act-related issues, such as the blurring of the line between on-duty and off-duty conduct. “The Hatch Act should be updated to reflect the realities of the workplace in the 21st Century, taking into account new technologies and the existence of social media,” he said.
During a House hearing last June, an OSC official said that during 2010, the agency received more than 500 Hatch Act-related complaints and resolved about the same number, in many cases without having to bring a formal complaint before the merit board. Many complaints involve allegations of improper solicitations for political contributions, she said, including instances of supervisors pressuring subordinates to make donations.
The office also issued some 4,000 opinions that year to employees seeking guidance on whether a certain activity is allowable.