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Bill would update Hatch Act, which regulates federal worker involvement in politics

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Matthew Arlen couldn’t run for his local school board because Uncle Sam pays for his dog.

Arlen is a transit cop in Philadelphia. His partner is a black lab named Hhynes. Expenses for the canine, including a portion of Arlen’s salary as the dog’s handler, are covered by federal Homeland Security funding.

That’s the rub.

The Hatch Act, which regulates federal employee involvement in elective politics, prohibits state and local government workers with federal funding from running for partisan positions.

Because of silly implications such as the one involving Arlen, a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators introduced a bill Wednesday that would update the Hatch Act.

It would take Sam’s long, meddlesome arm out of decisions on who can run for local office.

The legislation would allow candidates to seek local partisan positions even if they hold state or local government jobs that involve federal funding. The measure also would allow a greater range of penalties for federal employees who violate Hatch Act provisions. Currently, federal violators must be fired, even for minor offenses, unless the Merit Systems Protection Board unanimously agrees to a milder punishment.

The reforms were pushed by the Office of Special Counsel.

“As the agency that enforces the Hatch Act, we saw some real problems and asked Congress to fix them,” said special counsel Carolyn Lerner. “These are common-sense reforms that won’t cost the government anything.”

But the current law does come with a cost to public service.

“I was upset because I truly believed I had something to offer my community,” said Arlen, a father of two children. He withdrew from the school board contest after learning about the Hatch Act restrictions last year. The school board position in the suburban Pennsbury School District is unpaid. “It’s not like I was doing it for the money,” he said.

In another case, Jon Greiner, a former police chief in Ogden, Utah, who also was a state senator, was fired in December because he signed off on a federal grant for a dispatch center. City officials were forced to fire him or pay a hefty fine. Greiner said he is prohibited from working in law enforcement in Utah for 18 months.

In December, Mayor-elect Mike Caldwell said, “The federal government has been a real bully,” according to the Standard-Examiner.

Greiner still can’t make sense of the Hatch Act restrictions. “We really don’t understand what public good there is in this to begin with,” he told the Federal Diary. “I had no [federal] money, not even 10 cents . . . in my office, in my salary.”

It’s time to update the Hatch Act, said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate’s federal workforce subcommittee, “to provide greater flexibility for state and local government employees, and additional options for disciplining federal employees charged with minor violations of the Hatch Act.”

Akaka introduced the legislation along with Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“These are common-sense changes that will clarify the law and make it easier to enforce,” Cummings said. “State and local employees, such as police officers, should not be banned from running for public office, and there should be punishments less severe than firing for minor violations.”

Under the legislation, District government employees, who currently face the same rules as federal workers, would be treated as other state and local government employees.

Provisions in current law that prohibit state and local workers from using their official positions to interfere with an election or a nomination and prohibit them from coercing other employees to contribute to a person or a party for political purposes will remain in effect.

Although the main sponsors are Democrats, Republicans could be attracted to the measure because it would remove one example of federal interference in state and local affairs, something conservatives often urge. Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) is a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, along with Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

Lee’s office cited Greiner’s experience as a reason for the senator’s sponsorship.

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

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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