Hatch Act puts some elected District leaders in impossible position

Friday, December 31, 2010; 9:10 PM

RUNNING FOR ELECTED office carries its risks. But only in the District of Columbia do certain officials risk breaking the law by seeking higher office. The nutty situation is the result of the District being the only local jurisdiction still under the federal Hatch Act. That the law is routinely violated but selectively enforced is further proof of the need for Congress to fix the problem by giving the District the same rights to self-government as every other local jurisdiction in the country.

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel, charged with enforcing the Hatch Act governing political activity by federal government employees, has taken the position that the District's elected officials and employees are subject to the act unless specifically exempted by Congress. That means the mayor, D.C. Council members and recorder of deeds are okay, but school board members and advisory neighborhood commissioners are covered. Two school board members, Sekou Biddle and Dorothy Douglas, are seeking to fill the open at-large seat on the council and are the subjects of an inquiry sent to the special counsel's office by local activist Robert Vinson Brannum.

Mr. Brannum has more than a passing interest in the issue, having been advised by the counsel's office in 2006 that he was in violation of the Hatch Act when he, then an advisory neighborhood commissioner, ran for chairman of the D.C. Council. He withdrew from the race. There have been other instances, though, of people elected to the council from Advisory Neighborhood Commission positions (Adrian M. Fenty perhaps being the most notable). Indeed, isn't that part of America's great political tradition of grooming citizens for public office?

The Office of Special Counsel has acknowledged confusion about the law's application to elected officials, ruling, for example, that school board member Tommy Wells was in apparent violation of the Hatch Act in running (successfully) for the council in 2006 but taking no further action because it acknowledged it was unclear what sanctions could be imposed. It's likely there would have been no follow-up to Mr. Brannum, but he thought it "unseemly" to run for public office when "a federal official tells you face to face your campaign is in clear violation of a federal law."

D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has rightly said that no one should have to face that kind of dilemma, and she has decried the law's selective enforcement in repeated efforts to get Congress to address the problem. Her bill (H.R. 1345) to remove the District from the federal Hatch Act once local legislation is enacted passed the House this year, but when it made it out of committee to the Senate floor, at least one Republican anonymously objected to passing it by unanimous consent. Let's hope the incoming Congress sees the wisdom of making this long-overdue and common-sense fix.

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