Politicians who, for many years, have been promising the bureaucracy total political freedom are probably lucky they have been unable to deliver 2.6 million newly emancipated voters in time for the 1980 election.
The fact is that this year's model civil servant is as mad as hell, and very likely to bite the hand that once promised to free him or her from the "shackles" of the Hatch (no politics) Act.
That 1939 law, which President Carter promised to liberalize, is now the main force holding an angry bureaucracy -- ticked off about pay ceilings, pay parking, retirement cuts and antibureaucrat attitudes -- from turning on its boss.
Ironically it is the Democrats, who have been the main backers and potential beneficiaries of a politically free civil service who now stand to lose most from an angry, politically active bureaucracy. Right or wrong, most politicians assume most U.S. workers are Democrats.
Democrats control the Senate and House. It has been Democratic Budget Committee chairmen and a Democratic president who have imposed pay raise limits and pushed for cuts in retirement benefits for government workers.
Whether those cuts are justified or not, whether they play well in Peoria or not, the point is that federal workers, military personnel and retirees -- about 8 million voting age people -- seem to be in a modd to throw the rascals out. Since, numerically, Democratic rascals outnumber Republican rascals in the Senate and House, most incumbents should be delighted that the Hatch Act is still in effect.
The Hatch Act doesn't keep workers from voting, talking politics or giving money -- passive roles that most Americans accept. It does forbid employes from involvement as candidates, managers or fund-raisers in partisan campaigns. It also bars job-related solicitations for money or help from bosses. One man's prison is another man's security blanket.
Congress has debated Hatch Act reform for decades. Generally Democrats say they favor it, Republicans tend to oppose it.
The House has twice passed bills -- by Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.) -- to liberalize the Hatch Act. Clay, a onetime union official, believes government workers will get the political kiss-off until they get political muscle. His bill has been stopped twice by the Senate Government Affairs Committee.Backers claim the White House didn't push hard enough for Senate action. Now they think they know why.
The "why" is this: Why hand a guy a baseball bat when you are about to ask for his wallet?
President Carter's government reforms have included many measures that are unpopular with those people being reformed. His civil service reforms give the White House more control over the upper reaches of government, and indirectly, over once-insulated middle-level workers' pay raises and promotion prospects. His proposed pay reform, which sounds reasonable to most people outside of government, would trim an estimated $1,500 per employe in catchup-with-industry raises over the next couple of years.
(For example, his proposed federal pay reform would result in an October 1980 raise of 6.2 percent, rather than the 10 percent to 12 percent due under the present system.)
The final blow, many federal people feel, is the White House-Congress plan (about to become reality) to limit federal-postal-military retirees to a single cost-of-living raise each year. Retirees are now promised inflation catch-ups every six months. The White House said the Senate and House budget committees say that is too costly and unfair to nonfederal retirees who are lucky to get one full-sized COL raise a year.
Add all of the above together and you get a very angry, bitter bureaucracy. Fortunately -- for those who are trimming federal pay and pensions -- federal workers are still under the Hatch Act. That won't stop them from giving money or voting, but it does limit their partisan roles.
The new militancy within the federal work force is a reality. Whom it will help -- Carter, Reagan, Anderson -- is unknown. How long it will last is anybody's guess.
But it is safe to speculate that many congressional Democrats who once would have given their left pinky for Hatch Act reform are now thankful they didn't get what they thought they wanted several million new, active, well-placed campaign workers and contributions. Maybe it will happen another time.