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 LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeOvernight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Pence says Turkey agrees to ceasefire | Senators vow to move forward with Turkey sanctions | Mulvaney walks back comments tying Ukraine aid to 2016 probe On The Money: Senate fails to override Trump veto over border emergency | Trump resort to host G-7 next year | Senators to push Turkey sanctions despite ceasefire | McConnell tees up funding votes Senate fails to override Trump veto over emergency declaration MORE (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 LevinCarl Milton LevinRemembering leaders who put country above party Strange bedfellows oppose the filibuster Listen, learn and lead: Congressional newcomers should leave the extremist tactics at home MORE (D-Mich.), while the House bill is sponsored by Reps. Gerry ConnollyGerald (Gerry) Edward ConnollyPerry won't comply with subpoena in impeachment inquiry Trump confirms Rick Perry to step down as Energy secretary Overnight Energy: Perry to step down as Energy secretary | Future of big-game hunting council up in the air | Dems lose vote against EPA power plant rule MORE (D-Va.), Jim MoranJames (Jim) Patrick MoranLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Star-studded cast to perform play based on Mueller report DC theatre to host 11-hour reading of the Mueller report MORE (D-Va.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).