Hatch Act reform isn't such a sure thing anymore. Legislation to grant full political participation rights to government workers cleared the Senate and House easily last year.It was vetoed by Preisdent Ford.

President Carter, however, has said he would sign a Hatch Act reform bill (of his choosing) when it gets to him. Since Democrats who favor the Hatch Act changes outnumber Republicans who don't, it seemed like this was the year that 2.6 million federal workers would be allowed to take active, off duty roles in partisan politics for the first time in nearly four decades. But things change.

Wednesday afternoon the House subcommittee in charge of Hatch Act reform cleared the bill by Chairman William Clay (D-Mo.), but with some changes that could cause a problem with the public, and with the President.

What happened was that the subcommittee refused to continue Hatch Act restrictions on a large group - maybe 5 per cent of the federal work force - that President Carter wants kept out of the political arena.

On the other hand, the subcommittee agreed to a White House smendment that would, in effect, exempt all White House aides and about 300 political appointees from any of the pohibitions against on-the-job politicking.

The first item could give the bill trouble with the President. The second could give it problems with the general public, and could play into the hands of Republicans (when supported if for strategic reasons in subcommittee) who want to kill off any Hatch Act reform.

In essence, this is what the Clay bill to reform the Hatch Act would mean to government workers:

Most of the 2.6 million federal and postal workers would be allowed to run campaigns, or run as partisan candidates in elections. That is something the Hatch Act now prohibits.

Under the Clay bill employees would not allowed to politick on the job. They could not collect funds for political reasons. They could not use promotions or choice work or training assignments to reward or punish employees for helping, or refusing to help, in political campaigns.

AFL-CIO unions that are pushing the Clay bill argue that it retains all the existing protections of the Hatch Act but would grant the same political rights that other American workers enjoy to most off-duty civil servants.

The administration argument for exempting political appointees and White House aides from the ban on on-the-job political activite siis that it is simply realistic. Obviously, they argue, the Secretary of Commerce, Attorney General and other political appointees are political creatures. Technically are "on duty" 24 hours a day, 7-days a week, so it would be silly and hypocritical, the White House feels, to limit their political actions to after 5 p.m.

On the other hand, the White House wanted and did not get a guarantee that thousands of "sensitive" or "restricted" aides in government would continue under the existing Hatch Act prohibitions against partisan political activity.

The categories the White House wanted exempt are persons engaged in contracts or grants; procurement; audits, and CWA workers.

Clay's bill would bar many IRS auditor fromfull political participation. But the White House wanted the Hatch Act blanket stretched over a much larger group that could include as much as 5 per cent or more of the total federal work force.

"It just doesn'tmake sense," an administration aide said yesterday, "to allow somebody to campaign for a mayor when that individual, as a federal employee, is also making grants to the city."

The full Post Office-Civil Service Committee is due to meet on the Hatch Act reform package next week. Quick approval was almost a sure thing. Now it is not so certain. White House aides say it is too early to talk about a veto, because of the exemptions the President wanted but didn't get. But they say the word might crop up later.