A North Carolina federal worker was suspended recently for being a Democrat. His enforced furlough followed a similar payless layoff for a Midwestern bureaucrat who took his Republicanism too seriously.
Both men made the mistake of dabbling in partisan politics while remaining on the federal payroll as career civil servants. They fell afoul of 1939 law, the Hatch Act, that means such civil servants can't take active roles in partisan campaigns. The AFL-CIO has pushed to unleash the nation's 2.6 million career federal workers, and, until recently, the drive had President Carter's blessings, if not his active support.
But the president's escalating, undeclared war against the bureaucracy and worker backlash to the boss may serve to put Hatch Act "reform" in the Califano-Schlesinger-Adams retirement home. It may be put on ice as long as this president is president.
Although Hatch Act penalties can be stiff, nobody ever goes on the chain gang for wearing a political button at work, running for office while on the U.S. payroll or managing a campaign. But people do get charged with violations, and, especially during major campaign years, some do get punished.
The law was designed to insulate the bureaucracy from politicians who might force public workers to help them or give money, using the threat of unemployment as a club.
Opponents of the Hatch Act say it has outlived its usefulness. Now, they claim, it serves only to deprive the nation of the political know-how of 2.6 millino of some of its best-paid, best-trained citizens.
People who want the law liberalized say thousands of civil servants want to become active in politics, and that to deny them full rights forces them to accept second-class; citizenship because of their jobs.
As a general rule, congressional Democrats support Hatch Act reform, Republicans tend to oppose it. A major exception has been liberal Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.). His governmental Affairs Committee took no action on a House-passed Hatch Act reform bill primarly because Ribicoff didn't like it. Union leaders failed to find a "big name" senator - they tried Kennedy and Muskie - to carry the ball for them in the Senate.
Union leaders who planned to revive Hatch Act reform this year and next figured that fence-sitting federal dna postal employes would use the greater political feeedom to improve their job conditions. Whitecollar pay raises have been shaved the last two years, pension cutbacks are threatened and Congress talks about merging the federal staff retirement program with social security, a nightmare for persons who understand the different goals and benefits of the two plans.
The big push for reform of the Hatch Act has come from postal and federal unions linked with the AFL-CIO. Most opposition to change is from liberal and conservative groups, suspicious of change for different reasons, and from independent federal unions.
Candidate Jimmy Carter promised the American Postal Workers Union and American Federation of Government Employes (in statements they wrote for him) to support Hatch Act reform. But active White House support rom President Jimmy Carter has been difficult to identify. Two years in office, with a Democratic White House and Congress, Hatch Act reform is less than halfway to becoming law.
Now that Carter is again soundgin like a candidate (running against the bureaucracy), some people think he would be dumb to unleash the bureaucracy now to get active partisan politics.
The president and Congress have plans for several governmental changes, none of them things federal or postal workers will like. Whitecollar pay has been "capped" at 5.5 percent for the second year; retiree cost-of-living raises may be changed; social security may supplant civil service retirement.
If there is a federal bloc vote (some say 5 million with spouses), it is safe to say Carter won't get it in the next election. So why should anybody expect him to encourage changes that would make it easier for civil servants to fight back.