Just in time for the campaign season to heat up, final rules have been issued carrying out changes enacted more than a year ago in the Hatch Act, the law restricting partisan political activities by federal employees.
Rules published Monday by the Office of Personnel Management finalize policies that took effect in early 2013 allowing for greater leeway in disciplining employees who are found to have violated the law. Under prior policy, firing was required, an action that could be reduced to no less than a 30-day unpaid suspension. The new policy allows for debarment from federal employment for up to five years in addition to firing on the most severe end, as little as a reprimand on the least severe end, and shorter suspensions, reductions in pay grade and civil fines up to $1,000 in between.
Federal employees generally may not use their official authority to affect the result of an election; run for public office in a partisan campaign; participate in fundraising; or participate in political activities while on duty or on federal premises. The rules are complex, however, and there are various exceptions; in addition, tighter rules apply to certain positions.
Certain lesser restrictions apply to state and local government employees whose jobs are funded by federal grants or loans. Under the new rules, carrying out a law enacted in late 2012, the restrictions affect only jobs that are completely funded by the federal government; previously they applied even to those partially funded. In addition, employees of the District of Columbia were put under the policies for those employees rather than the policies for federal employees.
An additional change widened an exception that allows employees living in areas with high percentages of federal workers to run as candidates in partisan elections, although only as independents, and to participate more fully in support of others. The law specified that the District and its inner suburbs qualify, as do communities in which most voters are federal employees.
The Hatch Act is enforced by the Office of Special Counsel, which investigates alleged violations. That office can negotiate agreements with employees—for example, for unpaid suspensions—or can bring formal complaints seeking discipline to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The new disciplinary rules apply to MSPB decisions against employees in those cases.