Dems look to ease penalties against federal workers for engaging in politics

Democrats in the House and Senate on Wednesday proposed legislation that would ease penalties that federal workers face for engaging in partisan political activities such as campaigns or other overt actions.

Federal workers are restricted from engaging in partisan political activity under the Hatch Act of 1939, a law that grew out of complaints that federal workers were helping collect votes for the Democratic Party. 

Under current law, employees who violate the Hatch Act are required to either be removed or suspended for at least 30 days without pay. Suspensions can only take place if the Merit Systems Protection Board votes unanimously to take this step.

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But under legislation introduced by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) in the Senate and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) in the House, the Board would have flexibility to choose from a menu of penalties. These include not just removal, but "reduction in grade, debarment from federal employment for a period not to exceed five years, suspension, reprimand or an assessment of a civil penalty not to exceed $1,000."

Akaka argued on Wednesday that this change is needed to address what he said were "minor violations" of the law.

"Under the law, it is possible that a federal employee could lose his or her job for inadvertently sending an email at work containing improper political content or hanging a picture on his or her wall during a campaign season," Akaka said. "My bill would amend these provisions of the Hatch Act to allow the Merit Systems Protection Board, which adjudicates Hatch Act complaints in the federal government, to impose a range of penalties, from termination to a reprimand, depending on the nature of the offense involved."

Cummings agreed that there should be "punishments less severe than firing for minor violations."

Sen. Mike Lee (Utah), the only Republican on either the House or Senate bill, said that while federal employees must make sure that their first duty is to serve everyone, the bill is needed to help better protect them. 

"If we can update the Hatch Act to provide for greater flexibility for public workers while still ensuring the legitimacy of our politics, there should be no reason for anyone to oppose such a change," Lee said.

The Hatch Modernization Act, S. 2170 and H.R. 4152, would give state and local employees the freedom to run for partisan elective office, an activity they are now not entitled to pursue. It would also treat District of Columbia employees the same way that state and local workers are treated for purposes of enforcement; today, D.C. employees are treated as federal workers.

Sponsors of the Senate bill are Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), while the House bill is sponsored by Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

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