Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., says the bill makes common-sense changes.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., says the bill makes common-sense changes. Alex Brandon/AP

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Two decades later, lawmakers move to revise Hatch Act

New legislation would allow state and local government employees to run in partisan elections.

For nearly 20 years the Hatch Act, a law forbidding federal employees from participating in partisan political activity, has gone unchanged. Now a bipartisan group of House and Senate lawmakers is seeking to remedy that.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., introduced legislation Wednesday that would update the law, partly by limiting its jurisdiction over state and local government employees and allowing them to run for partisan elective office. The 2012 Hatch Act Modernization Act -- co-sponsored by Sens. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn.; Carl Levin, D-Mich.; and Mike Lee, R-Utah -- would mark the first change to the law since it was last amended in 1993.

The bill also would give the Merit Systems Protection Board greater flexibility to issue a range of penalties for Hatch Act violators. Currently, the only approved punishment is termination, which can be mitigated to a 30-day suspension by unanimous approval of all three Merit Systems Protection Board members.

“These are common-sense changes that will clarify the law and make it easier to enforce,” said Cummings, ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “State and local employees, such as police officers, should not be banned from running for public office, and there should be punishments less severe than firing for minor violations.”

The Office of Special Counsel, which handles investigations of Hatch Act violations, recommended similar reforms to Congress in October 2011. OSC praised the legislation’s bipartisan, bicameral support in a release Wednesday.

“We are pleased, very pleased, with what this bill does,” OSC spokeswoman Ann O’Hanlon told Government Executive. “We asked Congress to please take a look at this antiquated law and propose amendments to it, and they have, so we’re delighted.”

OSC’s Hatch Act caseload has more than quintupled during the past decade, from 98 reported violations in 2000 to 526 in 2010, according to O’Hanlon, who said the dispute resolution staff is “completely underwater” with casework. The law in its current form has resulted in instances such as a Pennsylvania police officer in a K-9 unit who was told he couldn’t run for his local school board because he received some funds from the Homeland Security Department for his dog.