Special counsel recommends reforms to law covering improper political activities

Federal employees would not automatically lose their jobs for violating a law prohibiting certain political activities, under draft legislation that the Office of Special Counsel sent to Capitol Hill on Thursday.

OSC is recommending reforms to the 1939 Hatch Act, such as expanding the range of penalties under the law, including but not limited to removal. Currently, removal is the only penalty authorized for federal employees who violate the law. The Merit Systems Protection Board can determine after a hearing whether the violation warranted firing the employee. Under the draft bill, other penalties include a reduction in grade, debarment from federal employment for up to five years, suspension, reprimand, or a fine of up to $1,000.

Removal from employment as the only recourse for dealing with Hatch Act violations can be unfair to workers and can hinder OSC's ability to enforce the law properly, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said Thursday during a briefing with reporters on the proposed reforms. Lerner said agencies may be reluctant to lose employees who violate the Hatch Act since the only current penalty under the law is removal.

Prohibited activities under the Hatch Act, which has not been reformed since 1993, include running for office in partisan elections or engaging in political activity while on duty or in a government office. Federal workers also cannot solicit or receive political contributions from any person except in certain instances involving labor organizations or employee groups. Federal employees are allowed to be candidates for office in nonpartisan elections, contribute money to political organizations, and campaign for or against candidates in partisan elections, among other freedoms. In addition, the law provides some allowances for federal workers in Maryland, Virginia and other designated localities. The Office of Personnel Management has the authority to grant the partial exemption under certain conditions to communities where the government employs large numbers of voters or are in the immediate vicinity of the District of Columbia.

In addition, OSC is recommending reforming the law to allow state and local government employees to run in partisan elections. Currently, state and local government employees who oversee or are connected to federally funded programs are not able to run in partisan political elections, among other restrictions. The agency, which enforces the law in addition to its other duties, receives more than 2,000 inquiries each year regarding whether a particular candidate in a state or local political race is eligible to run. Of the complaints filed in fiscal 2011, 54 percent involved state or local workers, and the time frame for each investigation was unpredictable. Even an insignificant connection to federal funding in an employee's job restricts him or her from running in a partisan election. One recent example involved a Pennsylvania police officer in a canine unit who could not run in the local school board election because his work dog was tied to Homeland Security Department funding. Lerner said the Hatch Act was not intended to cover that type of situation.

"Clearly, the Hatch Act needs to be updated for many reasons," Lerner said.

Since 2000, OSC's Hatch Act unit has seen its workload increase more than 400 percent. "I think we should get out of the business of enforcing the Hatch Act in these state and local cases," she said. While OSC is seeking to allow state and local government employees to run in partisan elections, those workers still would be subject to other Hatch Act restrictions under the proposed reforms. Federal employees still would be prohibited from running for partisan office, under the draft bill, except in geographic locations that are exempt from that restriction.

OSC also is asking Congress to define "political activity" as it's outlined in the law as well as better define what constitutes the federal workplace in the age of telework and social media. For example, under current law, employees' homes do not meet the definition of federal workplace. OSC would like lawmakers to craft new advisories on guidance for appointees as it relates to political travel and political briefings. "It's something Congress really has to address," Lerner said of those proposed recommendations.

Lerner said she has met recently with House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., to discuss reforms to the law. She said both lawmakers were supportive of OSC's ideas. During a March congressional hearing, Lerner told lawmakers she would make a review of the Hatch Act a priority.

The number of complaints related to inappropriate political activity in the federal workplace increased in fiscal 2010, according to OSC. Since January, Congress and the Obama administration have been looking more closely at the 72-year-old law, which many regard as confusing and outdated.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.