If the Hatch Act revisions approved unanimously by the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee become law, citizen confidence in the administrative institutions of government will plummet. The bill would permit all civil service employees to engage in the full range of partisan political activities when they are off duty. (Prohibitions would continue against on-the-job activities, including use of official influence or information for partisan purposes.)
Critics of the act have valid complaints, mostly dealing with uncertainty about whether the act applies in some specific off-duty situations. This uncertainty causes many employees to avoid authorized political activity and needs to be resolved.
Advocates of the revision also argue that conditions have changed since the Hatch Act was passed in 1939 and that prohibitions on off-duty political activity are no longer needed. They correctly point out that, back then, about a third of federal employees were not covered by the merit system, whereas now it is only 10 percent; and that it was the partisan activities by many of those outside the merit system that led to the Hatch Act. But this ignores other relevant changes in the last half-century: a population twice that of 1939, a more complex and technologically advanced society and thousands of new laws whose administration involves the use of considerably more judgment on the part of civil service employees.
Experience tells us that what activity would be permitted by the revisions would soon become the expected behavior. Permeating the civil service would be the perception that better assignments, promotions and bonuses depended in part on partisan politics. Equally destructive of morale and motivation would be a concern that not having been promoted, etc. was due to one's having engaged in political activity for the unsuccessful candidate or simply not having gotten involved at all.
In addition, citizen confidence in the impartiality of the civil service would erode rapidly. Many citizens would have strong doubts about the objectivity of those who fought them in political campaigns and who then were involved in investigations or decisions that adversely affected them -- dealing with such issues as taxes, eligibility for individual and corporate benefits, compliance with regulations and procurement contracts. Public trust in the administration of government would be undermined to a dangerous degree.
Finally, participation of federal employees in partisan politics would greatly increase an incoming administration's doubts about the responsiveness of the career civil service to new political leadership. For many presidents in both Republican and Democratic administrations, it has been hard to shake such doubts, even though they were almost always unjustified.
The adverse consequences of permitting civil service employees to engage in partisan politics are so great as to make it unacceptable. Similarly, a situation that continues to discourage a large number of citizens from exercising authorized political rights is also unacceptable. Doubts about interpretations of the Hatch Act need to be resolved. This is a task worthy of a citizens' advisory group. -- Bernard Rosen The writer was executive director of the Civil Service Commission.