The House this week will take up a bill that would reverse a federal policy that had been in effect since President Theodore Roosevelt issued it as Civil Service rule No. 1 in 1907.
Enacted into law as the Hatch Act in 1939, that policy prohibits federal employees from taking an active part in political campaigns or running for public office.
The bill on the floor this week, which "encourages" political participation to the point of assuring a federal employee that he will get his Civil Service job back, or a comparable one, if he runs for political office and loses, has generated an intense and emotional lobbying effort both for and against.
Both sides recognize that the 2.8 million federal workers whose future as participants in upcoming political campaigns is at stake, represent a potentially powerful force in politics.
Labor unions, civil rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, supporting the bill, took out a full page ad in the Washington Star Monday.
"Charlotte Wilson wants to help elect her next senator from South Dakota. But the law won't let her," said the headline next to a picture of a Veterans Administration secretary from Ft. Meade, Md.
The ad contended the Hatch Act is an anachronism preventing federal employees from exercising a "fundamental democratic right." The merit system would be strengthened, not harmed, by the bill, the ad says, adding that an American University poll shows federal employees favor Hatch Act "reform" by a margin of more than 2 to 1.
On the same day, a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal charged "union bosses" are engaged in a "raw union power grab" to "throw open the doors of public service to partisan politics and political coercion" by repealing the Hatch Act and resurrecting "the spoils system under the control of the union power structure." The ad was paid for by Americans Against Union Control of Government, a division of the Public Service Research Council, two groups many consider "cousins" of the right-to-work lobby.
In addition, opposition to the bill is coming from the Civil Service League, the International Personnel Management Association and Common Cause, which only recently took a position against it.
Common Cause president David Cohen, in a letter to House members, said the bill increases "the potential for building a powerful political operation based on the use of government workers."
Common Cause and Public Service Research Group both cite a poll commissioned by PSRG showing 73 per cent of federal employees polled want to keep the Hatch Act intact.
Though Teddy Roosevelt, in effect, first "Hatched" Civil Service employees in 1907, not that many federal employees were affected by his Civil Service rule, since only about 25 per cent of the federal employees came under the competitive Civil Service merit system at that time.
By 1938, New Deal programs had expanded the federal work force considerably, with many needy people becoming temporary federal employees in such relief programs as the Work Progress Administration (WPA). These jobs were not Civil Service and a scandal broke out when it was revealed that many had been coerced into supporting or working for the Democratic Party in return for a federal job. At that time only about 300,000 or 32 per cent, of the 900,000 federal employees were Civil Service. The scandals resulted in legislation by Sen. Carl Hatch, a New Mexico Democrats, forbidding any federal employee a part in political campaigns, apart from voting or expressing his opinion.
Today about two-thirds of the 2.8 million federal civilian employees come under the merit system of the Civil Service Commission, which poponents of the bill argue is ample protection to ensure the federal bureaucracy is free from spoils system abuse and political coercion.
In addition they cite protections in the bill which would prohibit supervisory officials from using their authority to coerce employees politically, prohibit political activity while on duty or in uniform, prohibit solicitation of political contributions by superior officials, and keep "Hatched" supervisory employees with audit, inspection, prosecutorial and law enforcement authority.
While the lobbying is intense, it appears likely at this point that the bill will pass the House.
A similar bill passed handily in 1976 only to be vetoed by President Ford. An override attempt in the House failed 243 to 160.
Mere passage by the House may not be enough to get the bill through Congress, however. No hearings have been held in the Senate, and Sen. Abraham A. Ribicoff (D-Conn.), chairman of the Government Operations Committee which will handle the bill, opposed it last time around.
So labor needs more than a narrow margin of victory to convince the Senate to act.