What does it do?
The Hatch Act, also known as An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, is designed to prevent members of the federal government who do not have explicitly political roles — like the president or vice-president — from engaging in political activity.
That means that if you are Secretary of Transportation, for example, you can't hold a fundraiser for the incumbent House member in your hometown. If you are a mailman, you can't run for the state Senate. You can't wear a "Steven Colbert for President of South Carolina" button while working at the National Archives.
There are plenty of political activities you can still take part in. You can vote, you can help register voters and you can run in nonpartisan elections -- like secretary of state. You can campaign for or against political candidates, and you can speak at fundraiser -- as long as you don't ask for donations. Just read this guide if you have any questions.
The main rule -- don't bring your politics to the office.
Why was the law created?
It was the late 1930s, and a couple of rounds of New Deal legislation had already been implemented. And Republicans and conservative Democrats were fuming that Franklin Roosevelt and his colleagues had accumulated so much power in the legislative hurricane they had just witnessed. In 1937, the president faced backlash for his Supreme Court packing plan -- everyone was on edge and ready to find fault with his administration.
Allegations that Democrats had used Works Progress Administration employees during the 1938 midterms were rampant. Sen. Carl Hatch, a conservative Democrat representing New Mexico, sponsored the Hatch Act, which FDR signed in 1939.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is in charge of upholding the Hatch Act.
The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Hatch Act twice. Congress has tried to amend the law several times. In most instances, it either failed to pass, or was vetoed by the sitting president. However, the law was amended in 1993 to allow many federal employees to have expanded roles in political campaigns if they wished.
However, the Hatch Act wasn't the first time the federal government worried about the political involvement of its employees. In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson released an executive order that read,
The President of the United States has seen with dissatisfaction officers of the General Government taking on various occasions active parts in elections of the public functionaries, whether of the General or of the State Governments . . . . The right of any officer to give his vote at elections as a qualified citizen is not meant to be restrained, nor, however given, shall it have any effect to his prejudice; but it is expected that he will not attempt to influence the votes of others nor take any part in the business of electioneering, that being deemed inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution and his duties to it.
In other words, don't tell people to vote for your boss, or Thomas Jefferson will be very disappointed in you. As will the Constitution.
When has the law come into play?
Given that the line between politics and federal government service is often blurred, many people have unsurprisingly run afoul of the Hatch Act (or been accused of doing so).
In 2012, 4,312,000 people worked for the federal government. It seems unlikely that all these personnel are aware of how removed they are supposed to be from politics.
As Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) said in a hearing about the Hatch Act: "The line between casual 'water-cooler' conversation and political activity that is not permitted may be unclear to many employees."
The law usually comes into play in local politics -- people who work for the Environmental Protection Agency may try to run for a seat on the city council only to learn they are prohibited from doing so. In 1992, a resident of Alexandria, Virginia was suspended from the Office of Thrift Supervision after an unsuccessful run for the City Council. In 1948, the Michigan Democratic Party got in trouble for soliciting donations from local postmasters.
The law sometimes becomes an issue in national politics, however -- especially more recently, as e-mail and the Internet have made it easier to track conversations between federal workers.
In 2007, GSA Administrator Lurita Alexis Doan was questioned after taking part in a videoconference about the 2006 elections with Karl Rove's political affairs office.
What about recently?
The law has come up several times in the past year.
In 2012, the OSC held that former Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius violated the Hatch Act for endorsing a candidate during a speech at a Human Rights Campaign event. Sebelius said, “I clearly made a mistake. I was not intending to use an official capacity to do a political event.” The OSC did not recommend any action be taken against the secretary.
Last year, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel began investigating former Secretary of Labor Solis, currently running as a candidate for the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, for soliciting donations for President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign.
In April the OSC filed a complaint with the Merit Systems Protection Board against an IRS customer-service worker who allegedly encouraged taxpayers to reelect Obama by “repeatedly reciting a chant based on the spelling of [the president's] last name," according to the Washington Post's report.
House Oversight Committee chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has conducted inquiries into other potential Hatch Act violations this year, including a look at the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach. The hearings have made many Democrats on the committee, especially Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, quite angry.
The Internet has only made it easier to find Hatch Act violations, and high-profile investigations are likely to continue coming up until federal employees learn not to email about politics. Or until the midterms end, at least.
Correction: An earlier version of this post noted that the OSC investigation into Hilda Solis was ongoing. The OSC only has jurisdiction over federal employees; since Solis no longer works in the Obama administration, the investigation has ended.