Hatch Act Keeps Federal Workers Out Of Politics

With only a couple of months before the election, authorities are putting out word that federal employees need to beware of the line between protected political activity and prohibited electioneering. A few high-profile dustups have attracted attention already this year and watchdogs are investigating 168 possible violations of the Hatch Act.

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There is sure to be some federal employees among those arriving in Charlotte for the convention and they have to tread carefully. A law written back in 1939 imposes some limits on government workers who mix politics and policy work.

As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, drawing the line can be complicated.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The idea behind that old law, the Hatch Act, is pretty simple: People on the federal dime should not spend time during work hours using any clout to get political candidates elected or trying to raise money for those candidates.

Congressman Darrell Issa, a Republican from California, put it this way at a House Government Reform Committee hearing.

REPRESENTATIVE DARRELL ISSA: We are not paid to run for re-election or to support a president's run for re-election. But rather, if you're taking the federal payroll, you're expected to do the job for which you have been selected or appointed.

JOHNSON: The law is enforced by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Its leader, Carolyn Lerner, says hundreds of federal workers are calling for advice this election season. She tells them to keep three things in mind.

CAROLYN LERNER: You don't want to do anything at work. You don't want to direct anything to any subordinate employees. And fundraising is never allowed.

JOHNSON: But some government employees have found it hard to follow those rules. A few weeks ago, Lerner's office suspended a Social Security Administration tech specialist for six months. The man recruited precinct captains and passed out yard signs for a gubernatorial candidate from inside his office at Social Security. He hosted a fundraiser for another candidate, asking for $250 donations.

And in another recent case, a worker at the General Services Administration recently got suspended for a month. She invited dozens of people to a fund raiser for President Obama and sent an e-mail from her government account supporting his last campaign.

Carolyn Lerner's investigating about 270 complaints. But she says she's not looking to play gotcha over minor slip ups.

LERNER: Coercion cases I think are the most serious and really what the Hatch Act was intended to address, where joining a particular party is a condition of employment. Or giving to a candidate that your supervisor supports as a condition of employment, or pressure is put on subordinate employees to do one thing or another.

JOHNSON: Those kinds of cases don't happen very often. Ethics experts say it's more common for a political appointee to get carried away and make remarks supporting a particular candidate.

Kathleen Sebelius is Health and Human Services secretary. She says that's exactly what happened to her earlier this year in North Carolina. Sebelius later said she'd reimburse taxpayers for the trip. Richard Painter teaches at the University of Minnesota.

RICHARD PAINTER: Hatch Act violations are going to be very difficult to avoid in situations where government employees are engaged in both official capacity work and partisan politics, at or about the same time.

JOHNSON: That's why Painter wants Congress to change the law to make clear...

PAINTER: That if someone holds a high level government job, that their energy should be devoted exclusively to that job and allow other people to handle the partisan politics.

JOHNSON: But Painter says he thinks its unlikely Congress will do any such thing, because every four years the Hatch Act offers the political party outside the White House a chance to criticize the party inside the White House for stepping over the line.

In July, Congressman Issa sent a letter to 18 Cabinet secretaries, asking whether they had traveled to support President Obama's campaign, or attended any events put on by superPACs. The White House, says Issa, is just trying to make the president look bad.

But Scott Coffina, who worked in the Bush White House, says the travel question is a real one.

SCOTT COFFINA: One of the trickiest things - and I know the White House is dealing with this now as they always have to - is dealing with political travel and the allocation of costs between official and political business, especially when there are mixed trips.

JOHNSON: Coffina says between now and November, there could be plenty more pitfalls when it comes to mixing politics with the work of government.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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