To Prevent Pernicious Political Activities: The Hatch Act and Government Ethics

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When a man assumes a public trust, he should assume himself a public property.

Thomas Jefferson1



The impeachment trial has concluded. By the time you read this editorial, Super Tuesday will be over. Then there will be the political party conventions, and finally the general election. Politics is everywhere and will be for the rest of 2020. As a preventive ethics measure, the legal arms of almost every federal agency will be sending cautionary e-mails to employees to remind us that any political activity undertaken must comply with the Hatch Act. Many of you who have worked in federal health care for some years may have heard a fellow employee say, “be careful you don’t violate the Hatch Act.”

Most readers probably had not heard of the statute before entering federal service. And you may have had an experience similar to mine in my early federal career when through osmosis I absorbed my peers fear and trembling when the Hatch Act was mentioned. This was the situation even though you were not at all sure you understood what the lawyers were warning you not to do. In my decades in federal service, I have heard that the Hatch Act dictates everything from you cannot vote to you can run for political office.

All this makes the timing right to review a piece of legislation that governs the political actions of every federal health and administrative professional. The Hatch Act sets apart federal employees from many, if not most, of our civilian counterparts, who, depending on your perspective, have more freedom to express their political views or are not held to such a high standard of ethical conduct.

In legalese, the Hatch Act is Political Activity Authorized; Prohibitions, 5 USC §7323 (1939). The title of this editorial, “To Prevent Pernicious Political Activities” is the formal title of the Hatch Act enacted at a time when government legislation was written in more ornamental rhetoric than the staid language of the current bureaucratic style. The alliterative title phrase of the act is an apt, if dated, encapsulation of the legislative intention of the act, which in modern parlance:

The law’s purpose is to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation. 2

For all its poetic turn of phrase, the title is historically accurate. The Hatch Act was passed in response to rampant partisan activity in public office. It was a key part of an effort to professionalize civil service, and as an essential aspect of that process, to protect federal employees from widespread political influence. The ethical principle behind the legislation is the one that still stands as the ideal for federal practitioners: to serve the people and act for the good of the public and republic.

The Hatch Act was intended to prevent unscrupulous politicians from intimidating federal employees and usurping the machinery of major government agencies to achieve their political ambitions. Imagine if your supervisor was running for office or supporting a particular candidate and ordered you to put a campaign sign in your yard, attend a political rally, and wear a campaign button on your lapel or you would be fired. All that and far worse happened in the good old USA before the Hatch Act.3

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is the authoritative guardian of the Hatch Act providing opinions on whether an activity is permitted under the act; investigating compliance with the provisions of the act; taking disciplinary action against the employee for serious violations; and prosecuting those violations before the Merit Systems Protection Board. Now I understand why the incantation “Hatch Act” casts a chill on our civil service souls. While there have been recent allegations against a high-profile political appointee, federal practitioners are not immune to prosecution.4 In 2017, Federal Times reported that the OSC sought disciplinary action against a VA physician for 15 violations of the Hatch Act after he ran for a state Senate seat in 2014.5

Fortunately, the OSC has produced a handy list of “Though Shalt Nots” and “You Cans” as a guide to the Hatch Act.6 Only the highpoints are mentioned here:

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