House Democratic leaders have decided to limit debate and prohibit amendments to a controversial Hatch Act bill, scheduled for floor action early next week, that would allow civil servants to run for office, manage campaigns and solicit contributions on their own time.
The decision has the tacit approval of Republican leaders, but drew a sharp rebuke yesterday from Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who contends the bill could undermine the civil service system and subject federal workers to political coercion.
"This is a kind of surprise thing to catch people off balance," said Wolf, whose Northern Virginia district contains a large number of federal workers. "Everyone should resent them slipping something like this through."
Wolf, one of the few vocal opponents of the bill, is at odds on this issue with House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) and Rep. Gene Taylor (R-Mo.), the ranking Republican on the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, which unanimously approved the bill Oct. 6.
An aide to Michel said yesterday the minority leader was aware of Wolf's efforts to obtain a rule that would permit amendments to the bill, but had deferred to Taylor and other Republicans on the committee "who felt it best that it come up on suspension" of House rules.
Wolf has complained that the bill does not include exemptions for federal workers with sensitive jobs, such as Internal Revenue Service auditors and Justice Department employes. He favors an amendment that would delay implementation of the bill until a blue-ribbon panel and the General Accounting Office study the issue further.
"This bill provides no safeguards against coercion by management or other safeguards for federal workers," he said. "I'm not saying the Hatch Act ought never be changed, but I think there ought to be an opportunity for amendments."
Rep. Stan Parris (R-Va.), another influential voice on federal employe issues from Fairfax County, "has some serious concerns about the bill as written but has not taken a position on it," an aide said yesterday.
Parris' congressional district contains the largest concentration of federal workers of any district in the country. Federal workers there are about evenly divided over the bill, according to a survey by his staff three weeks ago.
Groups as diverse as the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and Common Cause, the self-styled citizens' lobby, have come out against the legislation.
"The bill will lead to what we think is the undesirable politicization of the federal bureaucracy," said Ann McBride, senior vice president of Common Cause.
A spokesman for House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Calif.) said the leadership agreed to suspend the rules to bar amendments because of the overwhelming bipartisan support for the bill, which has drawn more than 250 cosponsors.
"It's good legislation," said David Dreyer, Coelho's spokesman. "Given the fact it passed the committee unanimously and didn't go through an amending processs . . . it presents a consensus between Democrats and Republicans."
According to a staff member of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, Wolf "had more than enough opportunities to make his case."
"He didn't prevail because he didn't have the allies on this," the staff member said.
With time running out in this session, Democratic and Republican proponents of the bill were anxious for quick action by the full House and concluded that the best avenue was to seek a suspension of the rules.