According to the law, a federal or postal employee may wear, on the job, a campaign button for his or her favorite presidential candidate.
But it is against the law for that same federal employee, or any other federal employee, to host a meet-the-candidate coffee at home after hours.
A federal employee may attend political rallies or meetings as a spectator, but may not participate in the rallies by carrying banners or placards.
A federal employee's family car may sport a political advertisement no larger than 15 inches by 30 inches, but a political advertisement posted on a federal worker's lawn may be no larger than 14 by 22 inches.
A federal employee may write a letter to the editor expressing an opinion on a partisan issue. But a federal employee may not seek to have copies of such a letter distributed to five or more newspapers, nor may that employee write five or more consecutive such letters to one newspaper.
The set of rules governing federal employee participation in politics is complicated, inconsistent and unduly restrictive of federal employees in their free time. Known as the Hatch Act, the law is so confusing that many federal employees find it difficult to exercise their political rights even to the extent permissible. They are confused as to what the limits are, so they play it safe by staying entirely, or almost entirely, uninvolved.
These Hatch Act restrictions, which are based on a conglomeration of more than 3,000 separate regulatory rulings issued before 1940, deprive 3 million American citizens who work for the federal government of the political voice that is their right.
In doing so, the Hatch Act deprives the rest of us of the political input of many members of our community. Federal and postal employees include some of the most knowledgeable and articulate citizens we have.
It has been a loss to the country that scientists from the National Institutes of Health, inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, and statisticians from the Census Bureau have not been permitted to participate in politics over the 48 years since the Hatch Act was passed. The loss to them and to their communities is particularly strongly felt in the Washington area, the home of some 350,000 federal employees. In Maryland's Eighth Congressional District, which I represent, there are some 60,000 federal employees, about 20 percent of registered voters, who are restricted by the Hatch Act.
The House will soon be voting on legislation to correct the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act reform bill, H.R. 3400, is a carefully crafted bipartisan compromise. It recently passed the Post Office and Civil Service Committee by a vote of 22 to 0. The more than 280 cosponsors of the bill include all eight members of Congress from Maryland.
This legislation would ban absolutely all politicking in the federal work place, including the wearing of political campaign buttons. But it would allow federal employees on their own time to engage in the full range of political activities open to other citizens.
By taking this black-and-white approach -- no partisan political activities on the job, any otherwise legal activities off the job -- the Hatch Act reform bill would clear up the ambiguity and vagueness surrounding partisan political involvement by federal employees.
In broadening the range of activity permitted U.S. government workers in their free time, the new bill would allow them to become active on behalf of political causes they believe in, or even to run for office themselves.
Some say that one side effect of this increased participation would be to engender new respect for the federal employee, particularly among those politicians who previously have found it all too easy to engage in federal employee "bashing."
That will be true to some extent. But I do not believe that the proposed legislation will have a revolutionary effect even on the partisan politics of the Washington area, with its many thousands of federal workers. Those who get really excited about politics, who want to get involved in stuffing envelopes, working on phone banks, knocking on doors, are a small minority of the population even in an area as politically focused as this one.
In fact, it has been argued that many federal employees like the present restrictions because the rules provide a convenient excuse for avoiding political involvement. If that is true of some federal employees, then it is particularly important to note that the reformed Hatch Act would even more effectively protect these workers' right to remain uninvolved.
It would do so through the ban on all on-the-job political activities, including those that were previously legal. It would do so through a prohibition on contributions to the campaign of a supervisor.
The new legislation would also toughen penalties for misuse of official authority or information and prohibit employees from soliciting, accepting or receiving a contribution from a person who has or is seeking a contract with the employee's agency, is regulated by the agency or has interests that may be affected by the performance of the employee's duties. Penalties for violation of these rules include fines, suspension, demotion, removal from specific job and disqualification from any federal employment for a period not to exceed five years.
These administrative penalties for actions that could be construed as involving political coercion are backed up by criminal penalties for acts of coercion themselves.
Working with the Congressional Research Service, I have determined that public employees of some 40 states, including Maryland and Virginia, are already allowed leisure-time political freedom comparable to that permitted by the Hatch Act reform bill.
I contacted the Virginia Department of Personnel and Training and the Division of Employer-Employee Relations of the Maryland Department of Personnel, both of which have been enforcing these regulations for years. Neither could remember a single complaint of political coercion involving government employees.
Our Constitution begins, "We the people . . . ," not "We the people except those in federal service." The balance contained in the Hatch Act reform bill is right and is long overdue.
The writer, a Republican representative from Maryland, is a member of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee.