The Civil Service Commission is preparing an understandable turn-about to support legislation that would grant much more political freedom for the government's 2.6 million federal and postal employees.
Last year, taking a cue from the Ford White House, CSC warned Congress against liberlization of the Hatch Act. Congress ignored the warning and passed the bill giving federal workers the right to run as candidates in partisan elections. President Ford vetoed the bill, and Congress failed to override it.
This year, taking a cue from the Carter White House, CSC will go along with Hatch Act changes. But veteran CSC career employee have proposed that their agency's new position include recommendations for strong legal safeguards for employees and stuff penalties for bosses and politicians who try to manipulate government workers or squeeze them for funds as part of their career advancement.
CSC's switch is not surprising nor is it a sign of a lily-livered bureaucracy. The agency merely reflects the changeover from a Republican to a Democrat administration and is taking the policy line of its current boss.
Federal officials began a frantic search for specific Carter statements on the Hatch Act shortly after he won. They found little, but, in talking with Carter aides and interpreting his few general remarks, they have produced a position paper now at the White House. They will present the paper to the House Post Office-Civil Service Committee when hearings begin this week.
Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.), whose manpower subcommittee will hold the hearings, sponsors the bill changing the Hatch Act. He says the bill will give federal workers the same political rights as other citizens but will retain sufficient safeguards to keep them from becoming pawns to be used by local or national politicians.
Clay has indicated that the hearings will be quick this year because extensive hearings were held a few months ago. Not much has changed except that a Democrat now sits in the White House and the CSC, thus has modified its adamant opposition.
Congressional Democrats have no doubt that Hatch Act changes will be signed into law this year, perhaps by June 1. They admit they will be more careful with the controversial changes this year than in 1976 when they knew whatever they did was done manily to please AFL-CIO unions. Most newspaper editorials and many career employees oppose changing the act.
A Democratic Senate staffer put it this way: "We know there is going to be a change-the-Hatch-Act bill this year, and it is going to be signed into law. Carter will probably sign whatever he gets because he has promised it. That's why we want to be sure he gets a bill that will be a good law. We hope we can write in the protections that are necessary.
"The key will be in the enforcement. If we find somebody playing games with government workers under a watered-down Hatch Act, we (the government) will have to hit him hard. If that happens, people will get the idea and won't tamper with the civil service in a political way," the staffer said. "If the tampering occurs and the government doesn't slap it down, you can bet there will be legislation in a year or two to bring back the Hatch Act prohibitions and I bet Carter would be the first one to support it," the staffer said.