In an age when the federal government's tentacles are spreading ever farther through loans, grants and other subsidies in places that once solely relied on local governments, the Hatch Act is becoming increasingly ridiculous.
Named for Sen. Carl Atwood Hatch of New Mexico, the act became law in 1939. Its intent was to keep politics out of the federal workplace and to eliminate any chance of bribery or coercion of federal employees public officials in federally funded workplaces from forcing employees to make campaign contributions as a term of employment. That noble purpose still exists, but the law's reach has resulted in some absurd situations right here in Utah.
Ogden was forced to fire its police chief last year because he served in the state Senate and his department received some federal grants and loans to help with police work. Salt Lake County Councilman Michael Jensen is facing a similar complaint from political opponents because he is chief of the Unified Fire Authority, which receives some financial support from the departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Agriculture and Interior.
The act is being used as a political weapon in other places, too. In Philadelphia, a transit cop wanted to run for a local school board position but was prohibited because his partner is a dog that was trained with federal funds. As he told The Associated Press, "How much influence can my dog have over what I could do on the school board?"
The act is laden with other absurdities that were on display at a hearing by the congressional House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last year. A federal employee can run for an elected office if it is nonpartisan. However, some offices (judgeships, for instance) are partisan in one state and nonpartisan in another. The same federal employee, then, would be barred from one and allowed to run for the other, even though the jobs are virtually the same.
A federal prosecutor could legally attend a fund-raising event for a local office, but he or she could not be on the host committee. The prosecutor could contribute to the event but if asked to speak could not solicit contributions. The prosecutor could, however, solicit votes.
Keep in mind that the officials in Utah and elsewhere who lost their jobs because of Hatch Act violations were not guilty of any malfeasance in office or of anything that could remotely be associated with a common understanding of corruption. The act requires the same penalty — termination — regardless of the severity of the violation or even whether the person involved was aware of the act to begin with.
Bills have been introduced both in the House and Senate to revise the act. Federal employees still would be prohibited from participating in partisan political activities, but state and local government employees would not. These reforms have the support of the Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the act, as well as politicians of both major parties.
The idea is to keep people from abusing their federal positions for personal political gain. Instead, the act has become a "gotcha" tool for political opportunists. That needs to end.
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