House Democrats and Republicans joined yesterday to overwhelmingly approve a major revision of the 48-year-old Hatch Act that would allow federal workers to run for office, take part in political campaigns and solicit contributions on their own time.
The bill, approved by 305 to 112, drew heavy fire from Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and a handful of other Republicans who predicted the measure would undermine the civil service system and invite widespread political coercion of federal workers by their supervisors.
"This bill . . . will do more to politicize and destroy the federal work force" than anything in memory, said Wolf, whose Northern Virginia congressional district contains a large number of federal workers.
Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.) warned that, under the bill, employes of the Federal Election Commission would be entitled to take part in political campaigns away from work.
"In my judgment, this is madness to have people who regulate the game to be full players in the game," Frenzel said. "We are opening up the doors to some real scandals in the future."
But Rep. Gene Taylor (Mo.), the ranking Republican on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee, and other proponents said the bill contains adequate safeguards against wrongdoing and offers federal workers the chance to fully participate in the political process.
"It just brings them up to have the same rights and protections as any other citizens," he said.
The bill, which has strong backing from the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) and postal workers and letter-carriers unions, goes to the Senate, where proponents are pushing for floor action late this year.
A similar measure approved by Congress in 1976 was vetoed by President Ford. The Reagan administration has threatened a veto if the Senate approves this year's measure.
Although House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.) voted against the bill, it attracted surprisingly widespread Republican support, including Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the minority whip, and all eight Republicans on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee.
Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), a member of the committee, said the Hatch Act overhaul "is a terrific, well-crafted bipartisan bill whose time has come."
Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), chairman of the civil service subcommittee who took a strong hand in shaping the bill, said it was a bipartisan compromise that reflected the concerns that were raised by critics at the last minute.
In all, 62 Republicans joined with 243 Democrats to approve the bill, which far exceeded the two-thirds majority necessary to pass the bill after the Democratic leadership suspended the rules to limit debate and prohibit amendments.
If enacted, the legislation would have its greatest impact in the Washington metropolitan area, where 357,552 federal and postal workers form the largest concentration of federal workers in the nation.
Some Washington-area politicians and experts said the proposed change could result in the creation of a cadre of highly motivated and knowledgeable activists and greatly strengthen the hand of government employe unions in campaigning for presidential candidates.
While freeing federal workers to participate in politics, the bill contains strict rules against on-the-job political activities by government workers and political coercion by government officials.
The bill specifically prohibits contributions to superiors or solicitations of government contractors, regulated industries and others seeking government favor. It bans the use of government money for political activities, and bars any political activity on the job -- including the wearing of campaign buttons.
Rep. William L. Clay (D-Mo.), chief sponsor of the bill, said it would rid federal workers of confusing rules on political activity.
But Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) disagreed, saying the proposed changes would tarnish the perception of the federal bureaucracy as politically neutral. "If the system ain't broke, don't fix it," he said.