Congress’ think tank wants to be clear: No federal entities can or have endorsed Republican nominee Donald Trump for president.
The Congressional Research Service felt the need to clarify that point after Trump said repeatedly in each of the debates and on the campaign trail that Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol have thrown their support behind his candidacy.
In a “legal sidebar” issued this week titled "Partisan Political Activities and Federal Workers: Questions in the 2016 Election,” CRS spelled out many of the restrictions on feds and their political activity. In it, the researchers said “questions were raised” where a “federal agency had endorsed a candidate for the presidency.”
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“The Hatch Act’s general prohibition on using one’s official authority or position to influence the outcome of an election -- applicable to all covered employees -- appears to clearly bar agency officials from declaring, on behalf of the agency, an endorsement for or opposition to a candidate for partisan political office,” CRS wrote.
CRS also clarified when federal employees can appear with elected officials, noting feds can in fact meet publicly with candidates “in their professional capacities” as a “regular matter of conducting federal business.” Once the appearance moves beyond policy discussions and into an attempt to influence the outcome of an election, feds must not be deemed to “use their official position.” All political activity must take place when feds are off the clock.
Even if a member of Congress up for re-election invites a federal employee to attend an event that appears to be a constituent service rather than a campaign event, the employee should consider declining the invitation to dispel any possible appearance of a Hatch Act violation.
The Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the Hatch Act, found Housing and Urban Development Department Secretary Julian Castro violated the law when in an interview he expressed both his support for Hillary Clinton and his desire to do a good job at HUD. Former Health and Human Services Department Secretary Kathleen Sebelius similarly ran into hot water when she voiced support for President Obama’s re-election at an official event. OSC has cited several rank-and-file feds throughout this election season for Hatch Act violations.
Federal employees are free to voice their opinions on candidates and issues, CRS said, as long as it is not on federal property or while the employee is on the clock. The researchers noted, however, certain employees, such as those in some law enforcement and national security positions, are held to a much stricter set of rules.
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