TO ACHIEVE its laudable goal of an apolitical federal work force, the Hatch Act goes too far -- much farther than it has to -- in restricting political activity and expression by federal employees. Congress was right in voting to liberalize it; President Bush was wrong to veto the liberalization bill; and Congress should now vote to override the veto.
There are more than enough votes to do this in the House, which passed the bill last year by 297 to 90. The Senate is the problem. The 67 votes that the bill got there -- 54 Democrats and 13 Republicans -- are barely the two-thirds required, and the betting is that the president can easily pick one off. It would be a shame.
Mr. Bush says in his veto message that there is "no real need" and has been no "grass-roots clamor" to relax the existing law. The implication is that if only a relatively few people are making a stir, as they are here, it becomes somehow legitimate to withhold the right of full expression; only if more were unhappy would their objection have to be met. But the First Amendment is terrain where the minority needs to be taken very seriously. It is important that some employees feel constrained. The balancing question then becomes: How great is the danger from which these constraints, themselves dangerous in an open society, are meant to protect us?
The president says that the bill would present a serious threat of "repoliticizing the federal work force," that its "obvious result" would be "unstated but enormous pressure to participate in partisan political activity" to the detriment of "the impartial . . . conduct of government business." Not so. Employees could still not run for partisan office, and could take active part in partisan activities only off the job. Coercion of subordinates would be banned under the bill, as it is under current law. The president objects that "the more subtle forms of coercion are almost impossible to regulate." But if so they are equally impossible of regulation now.
Both sides exaggerate the likely consequences of this bill. The federal employee unions that mainly want it and the Republicans who mainly don't both imagine federal employees being converted into a political phalanx. We doubt it. Our own sense is that feds are indistinguishable from the rest of the society. The Supreme Court has said that the Hatch Act is constitutional, but that doesn't mean it's right. The proposed legislation contains protections enough; current law is too broad an infringement on the most important kind of speech. The Senate ought to surprise its critics and hold firm.