What Is the Hatch Act?

United States Congress
The Hatch Act was signed into law in 1939.

After numerous claims that politicians in political office in the United States were using civil service employees to help with congressional election activities, investigations resulted in the creation of the Hatch Act.

What is the Hatch Act?

In 1939, Congress passed the Hatch Act, authored by Senator Carl Hatch, to prohibit certain political activities by employees of the federal government. 

The Prohibition on Political Activities

Due to the importance of swing states in federal elections, it was believed that the use of these civil service employees benefited a party by swinging votes in favor of them. People relied on and trusted these federal employees as sources of authority in public office.

Franklin D Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Hatch Act into law.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the President of the United States at the time. Under the United States Constitution, once legislation is presented to the president for signing, that president only has 10 days to sign or veto it. As a result of infighting within his party, with members of his party regularly siding with the opposing party, President Roosevelt had originally decided to veto the legislation but finally signed it into law at the last minute.

The Use of Public Funds

The Hatch Act of 1939 expressly prohibits the use of any form of intimidation, bribery, or any other form of political activity by any federal government employee. The legislation, however, does not include the president or vice president. Furthermore, it seeks to prohibit using any public funds for political purposes.

Accordingly, any federal government employee, including officials below the policy-making levels, must refrain from any form of political practices, including participation in campaigns. A government employee cannot use government resources for any activity that could be considered in favor of a party, candidate, or campaign.

The language of the legislation defines those individuals who are considered to be exempt from the Hatch Act. Those who are exempt include employees paid directly from the executive office appropriation funds or those appointed by the President of the United States and whose positions are within the confines of United States borders.

Moreover, the Hatch Act also prohibits any federal employees from becoming members of any form of political organization that seeks to overthrow the government. This prohibition was designed to prevent employees from joining both far-left and far-right movements, including the Communist Party and the German-American Bund.

An amendment to the act that was issued on July 19, 1940, extended these prohibitions to state and local government employees who are paid using federal funds. This amendment was included to prevent employees of any number of possible state-level agencies responsible for administering federal programs.

Attempts to Amend the Act

Naturally, for many politicians, the Hatch Act is considered to be an abomination. The act itself was created to effectively punish any federal employee who assists those same politicians in their campaigns. Because of this, there have been a handful of attempts over the years to amend the Hatch Act of 1939.

Gerald R. Ford
Gerald R. Ford vetoed a proposed amendment to the Hatch Act.

The first of such attempts occurred in 1975, after the House of Representatives passed legislation that would otherwise allow federal employees to run for political office and participate in partisan election activities. However, when the legislation was sent to the Senate, it was not taken up the action, and as a result, it effectively died on the Senate floor.

A year later, members of the House of Representatives attempted again to amend the Hatch Act to protect federal employees from coercion. At that time, there was worry that superiors and various levels of government were using their positions to coerce lower-level employees into participating in prohibited political activities. The legislation passed in the House of Representatives and was forwarded to the Senate, which also passed it. However, President Gerald Ford opted to veto the legislation.

In 1987, a new amendment was proposed to allow federal workers to participate in certain campaign events. However, this amendment failed to achieve a simple majority and died in the lower chamber. A similar proposal garnered the necessary number of votes in both the House of Representatives and Senate but was eventually vetoed by President George H. W. Bush.

The Hatch Act Reform Amendment of 1993 removed a specific prohibition that would allow federal employees to participate as managers of political campaigns. This amendment allowed this participation provided that the employee did not use his or her official authority or any federal funds to affect the outcome of an election.

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the most current iteration of the Hatch act into law. Unlike previous versions, the Hatch Act Modernization Act provided guidelines for the discipline of any offending employee. An employee of the federal government may face disciplinary action.

Photo of President Obama
Barack Obama signed amendments to the Hatch Act into law in 2012.

Still, they may also be fined and even removed from their position if they engage in prohibited activities. Moreover, the updated act defined the applicability of the prohibition to include the District of Columbia, which had previously been exempt since it was not covered under the state clauses.

Controversies

Over the years, there have been several different controversies related to the Hatch Act. In versions of the Hatch Act before 2012, there were limited options for disciplining any federal employee who violated the legislation. Even after the Modernization Act provided these disciplinary guidelines, the enforcement mechanism proved lacking.

Because of this, it is commonplace for employees of the federal government to participate in active campaigns and use their appropriated funds for those campaign activities. Common activities in violation of the Hatch Act over the years have included the use of government funds for transportation, lodging, and other expenditures in favor of a particular political campaign.

Because of the lacking enforcement mechanism, most of these violations have gone unchecked. As a result, there have been recent calls for further amending the legislation to provide for more concrete enforcement of the prohibition of federal employees from participating in or using their authority to sway voters in favor of a particular candidate, party, or campaign.

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