Senate efforts to relax a 50-year-old ban on partisan political activity by government workers have slowed, at least temporarily, while opponents of the Hatch Act look for a big name to carry the ball for them.
Four months ago the House easily passed a bill to allow the nation's 2.8 million civil servants to run as political candidates, serve as managers and raise funds in partisan campaigns. Then the question was whether Congress could override an expected presidential veto. Now it is a question of when or if the bill -- even in watered-down form -- will get out of the Senate.
As late as yesterday, Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) was seeking bipartisan sponsors to introduce the bill that zoomed through the House by a 3-to-1 ratio. That bipartisan endorsement of the bill by Rep. William Clay (D-Mo.) has since, however, drawn heavy flak from influential groups that has temporarily slowed the once well-greased Senate skids.
Previous efforts to "save" the Hatch Act centered on what effect revision would have on civil servants and if it would make them easier marks for political bosses asking subordinates for help or donations in return for job security.
But at recent Senate hearings, several members and groups raised concerns about whether taxpayers might feel subtle political pressure from federal workers who deliver their mail, audit their taxes or approve (or disapprove) their loans.
Postal and federal unions, prime movers in the effort to relax Hatch Act restrictions on political involvement, say it unfairly and unwisely punishes millions of the nation's best and brightest solely because they work for the government. The reform plan, they say, has sufficient safeguards for the public and their members.
Opponents say the nature of federal employment makes it inappropriate for workers, even on leave or off duty, to take active roles in political campaigns.
Most Senate Governmental Affairs Committee members seem sympathetic to claims that the Hatch Act makes U.S. workers second-class citizens. But they've also said they must consider the impact on the public. One spoke of the possibility of a letter carrier delivering mail one day and then using a day off to deliver political fliers on the same route.
The lineup on revising the Hatch Act shows why some Senate committee members are looking for a compromise.
Organizations supporting the Hatch Act revision include most federal and postal unions, the American Civil Liberties Union, Federal Times and The Washington Post.
Opponents include Common Cause, Public Service Research Council, Senior Executives Associaton, Federal Executive Institute Alumni Association, Federal Bar Association and the American Farm Bureau. Newspapers editorializing against any change include the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Buffalo News, Cincinnati Post and other home state newspapers of committee Chairman John Glenn (D-Ohio).
At 1 p.m. tomorrow on WNTR radio (1050 AM), representatives of the National Association of Letter Carriers and Common Cause will debate the merits of changing the Hatch Act.