Ever heard of the Federal Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activity? Caution: If you keep reading you may learn more about that than you wanted to.
Since you’re still with me here the topic this week is what’s more commonly referred to as the Hatch Act of 1939, which was passed because President Franklin Roosevelt’s head of the Work Progress Administration was caught handing out jobs based on the applicant’s political leanings. The law basically says that federal employees, including state employees funded by federal money, can be terminated for engaging in pernicious political activities. (Pernicious means having a harmful effect especially in a gradual or subtle way. For instance, today’s media has been known to have a pernicious effect on all of us).
I’ve always understood the fact that democracy is messy and politics is a full contact sport where people can get hurt in a myriad of ways. So the Hatch Act has always seemed like a good idea to me because when it comes to the individual versus government it is indeed a David vs. Goliath situation.
To me it’s critical that government employees are more public service oriented than political participants. Back in my day the Hatch Act was taken more seriously than it is today, and given all the angst that we the people suffer from today, the last thing we need in public service is more partisan behavior.
Whether or not you’re allowed to place a bid for a public project should not depend on your political leanings. The bid processes for public projects were set up to allow/encourage all sorts of contractors to fairly compete for public money. We seemed to have returned to the pre-Hatch days in the sense that your political affinity is more important than your competence.
Except for local elections (city, county, school, parks) the rest of the available elected offices are considered partisan (Legislature, governor, Congress, etc.) thus more political.
There are a number of offices that are exempt from the Hatch Act like the president/executive branch (Cabinet secretaries, other top dogs) and the average employee can still participate as long as they don’t do it on government time with government property.
Among many other rules, federal employees can’t be candidates in partisan elections, engage in political activities while on duty, invite or require that subordinate employees attend or contribute to a partisan event, solicit or discourage the participation in political activity of any person with business before the agency, solicit, accept, or receive political contributions, and use official authority to interfere with an election or while engaged in political activity.
All of these Hatch Act rules were created to level the playing field for you and me. Prior to this it was OK to bribe, coerce, destroy evidence, and abuse the power we the people give our elected and appointed officials.
As you can imagine over the years thousands of Hatch Act charges have been filed against every political party that has existed and most have been tempests in a teapot. Some violations triggered widely covered political hearings that have led to charges, terminations and such.
But most Hatch Act violations have resulted in a slap on the wrist where the violator was told not to do that again. And that seems to be where we are today when the White House hosted the Republican convention, the Secretary of State gave his convention speech while on duty in Jerusalem, and the southern border wall contract was granted more on politics than ability to perform.
So it seems that along with other laws and rules that have recently been ignored, the Hatch Act won’t be brought back until we the people once again do our best to eliminate pernicious political behavior.
Dan Ulmer is a parent, grandparent, as well as a retired teacher, counselor, politician, lobbyist, public employee, nonprofit executive and opinionated citizen who believes that we need to do what we can to leave the world better off than we found it.
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