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Star Tribune

Understanding the Hatch Act

The Republican's blatant disregard for the law was on display this week with multiple Hatch Act violations

Brian Young's picture
Aug 28, 2020

With the conclusion of the non-union Republican National Convention, there has been a lot of talk about how the Trump campaign violated a law called the Hatch Act. While this law is well known to anyone who works in the federal government or lives in the Washington DC area, most people are probably hearing about it for the first time, so here is a tutorial on the law that Trump continues to violate.

The Hatch Act became law in 1939 and was passed due to a growing concern that local Democratic party officials were using Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs to buy votes. While investigations into this were inclusive, Congress believed that there needed to be a law that guaranteed a non-partisan federal bureaucracy. In doing so, the Hatch Act prohibits civil service employees who work in the executive branch from engaging in some forms of political activity. While federal employees are allowed to work on political campaigns or run for office, they must do it on their own time, outside of work, and they can't use their rank as part of the campaign.

While the President and the Vice President are exempt from the Hatch Act their staffs are not. While it would be nearly impossible for a President not to engage in politics while on the job, many do try to keep electoral work separate from their government work, including not holding campaign events on federal property and even making political calls in the residence instead of in the Oval Office. This is partially to protect themselves from looking like they are using the office for political gain, but also to protect their staff who are covered under the Hatch Act.

While most President’s staffs have run into some issues with the Hatch Act, including two of Obama’s cabinet secretaries being admonished for violating the Hatch Act, Trump’s team has taken it to a whole new level. Just some of the examples include the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) warning Trump aide Dan Scavino Jr in 2017 that a tweet advocating for a primary challenger to Rep. Justin Amash violated the act, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley being warned over retweeting Trump’s endorsement of a Republican Congressional candidate, and the Office of Government Ethics head Walter Shaub filing a complaint against White House counselor Kellyanne Conway after she went on Fox and Friends to oppose Doug Jones in the Alabama Senate race.

These are just a few examples of Hatch Act violations, but this week Trump basically threw out the Hatch Act. Violations include holding a naturalization ceremony and pardoning as part of the convention, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking at the convention remotely from the Middle East where he is on an official diplomatic mission, and the speeches of both the First Lady and Trump from the White House grounds. While Trump himself couldn’t violate the Hatch Act, many experts say that there was no way the two speeches could have been put on without the help of federal workers.

With all of these violations, whose job is it to enforce the law? OSC is charged with enforcing Civil Service laws, but they don’t have much power to do anything. Technically a Hatch Act violation is a fireable offense, but in reality, that rarely occurs. Since Presidential appointees can only be fired by the President, few rarely are. Even for advisors like Conway, they are working at the pleasure of the President and the OSC doesn’t have the power to remove them.

However, if a civil service employee violates the Hatch Act their case will go before the United States Merit Systems Protection Board. The board has the ability to prosecute its case and punish the worker, including firing them.

While the Hatch Act has good intentions, the reality is that for political appointees and non-civil service employees working in places like the White House, it has very little effectiveness. While most administrations make an effort to not violate it, Trump’s team has shown that they will do whatever they want, whenever they want.

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