Bush appointees step lightly around Hatch Act

While George Bush and Dick Cheney are the ones running for reelection, thousands of political appointees will share their fate once all the votes have been counted.

For that reason, many of those staff members have hit key swing states in the last few weeks to campaign for their jobs — as well as potential advancement, if the president can win another term.

But because the Hatch Act forbids executive-branch employees from campaigning on the job, most Cabinet departments have gone to great lengths to explain campaign restrictions to their eager partisan staff members.
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Many appointees will share their career fates with George Bush.

In addition, Hatch Act restrictions have prevented many administration officials from explicitly discussing the president’s reelection drive with members of the Bush-Cheney campaign.

As a result, the Republican National Committee (RNC) has been an intermediary for political appointees who wish to help out on the campaign trail.

To drum up support for the 72 Hour Program, for example, the RNC held a recent information session at the Hotel Washington hosted by Maria Cino, deputy chairman of the RNC, and Matt Schlapp, the president’s director of political affairs. According to one attendee, about 400 people — mostly Hill and administration staffers — showed up to learn about volunteering for the program, which focuses on voter turnout in the last three days of the campaign.

Although neither Cino nor Schlapp said that volunteering would lead to a job in the administration if Bush wins reelection, there was a sense among some attendees that helping out on the campaign was the best way to secure a job — or move up the food chain — during a second term.

Indeed, there is a widespread assumption among a number of young Republicans in Washington that volunteering is a requirement for anyone hoping to secure a job in the White House.

“It’s the big white elephant in the room,” said one lower-ranking political appointee in the administration, who took unpaid leave last week to volunteer in Florida. “You do the 72 Hour Program both because you want to see the president get reelected and because you want to be credited with helping to do it.”

Whatever voters decide in the presidential election today, all political appointees will be officially terminated in January 2005. Those who choose to stay are then rehired by the personnel office.

Overall, the Hatch Act requires staff members to coordinate their volunteer activities and travel arrangements with the Republican National Committee (RNC).

The RNC is supervising the 72 Hour Program and will pay volunteers for airfare and lodging, in addition to a $25 per diem for food and other expenses.

Political appointees in the administration are required to take unpaid leave when they hit the campaign trail because they are not allowed to engage in political activity while on the government payroll.

Hatch Act campaign restrictions have the most effect on non-career Senior Executive Service officials and the lower-ranking Schedule C employees, who together make up only about 2,000 of the federal government’s 1.7 million employees.

Each administration office has notified employees of the campaign restrictions
throughout the past year. Last January, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz sent a letter to all civilian Defense Department employees notifying them of campaign restrictions.

A number of other offices have held meetings with their general counsels to lay down the ground rules for campaigning. In addition, the Treasury Department, for one, required all political appointees to submit a letter of request to the general counsel, which then had to be approved, said Rob Nichols, the assistant secretary of public affairs.

Political activity differs in each Cabinet department. For example, the Departments of Treasury and Commerce are two of the most political, while the State Department, the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense, for the most part, discourage campaign involvement.

The newly created Department of Homeland Security also frowns on its employees’, political or otherwise, hitting the campaign trail, said spokeswoman Valerie Smith.

The pronouncement was never made in a memo or rule, Smith said; instead, it is something that employees understand.

“The department made a commitment not to be involved in politics,” Smith said.

Most administration press officers were reluctant to tell The Hill how many political appointees were taking leave this week to campaign because federal employees, by law, are not required to list their reason for taking time off.

“Anybody can put a leave slip in and be gone for two solid weeks, and we have no right asking where they go,” said Tina Kreisher, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department.

Or, as Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Pierce put it, “What people do with their own time is what people do with their own time.”