Changes are likely in a more than 70-year-old law that has stopped government employees working with federal funds from running for local office.
The Hatch Act was approved in 1939, and one of its three rules is that state and local employees whose jobs are connected to federal funding cannot run for political office. The point of the law was to keep partisan politics out of the workplace.
But locally and across the country, the law was actually preventing qualified candidates from running for office, U.S. Office of Special Counsel spokeswoman Ann O’Hanlon said.
Sheriff Doug Cox resigned from his position as sheriff’s office chief deputy two years ago after a complaint was filed with the Office of Special Counsel that his candidacy for sheriff violated federal election rules. And former Greenwood City Council member Keith Hardin decided not to run for
re-election in 2008 after being told his job with a state office prevented him from running under the Hatch Act.
A CLOSER LOOK
What is the Hatch Act? Approved in 1939, the act prohibited state and local employees who worked with federal funding from running for partisan office. The law also prohibited those employees from using their jobs to influence those elections, or requiring other employees to participate in campaigns.
What was the problem? The U.S. Office of Special Counsel regularly received complaints, often from political opponents, that candidates weren’t eligible to run for office because of the act. The complaints were often not about the kinds of conflicts the law was intended to prevent.
What’s changed? Congress approved changes to the law, and now local and state employees may be able to run for partisan office unless 100 percent of their salary is federally funded.
What happens now? The revisions go to the president for his signature.
Last year, Congress approved changes to the law. Under the new rules, employees who receive 100 percent of their salaries from federal funds are not allowed to run for partisan office, O’Hanlon said. The revisions were approved by the U.S. Senate in November and by the U.S. House in December. The updates now go to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The other two provisions of the Hatch Act are unchanged. State and local employees working with federal funding still cannot use their jobs to influence a partisan campaign, nor can they require an employee to do anything for political purposes, O’Hanlon said.
“We really felt like we were disqualifying able candidates from serving their local communities. So that is the prohibition that is on the verge of going away,” O’Hanlon said.
When Cox worked as chief deputy he regularly dealt with federal grants that paid for equipment and projects, such as driving under the influence and seat belt enforcement efforts, that the county would otherwise have had to pay for. After Cox announced he was running for sheriff, a complaint was filed with the Office of Special Counsel that he was in violation of the Hatch Act.
Cox was given three choices: resign as chief deputy, withdraw his candidacy or continue running and expect to be replaced as sheriff if he won. He resigned and took a lieutenant’s job, which didn’t involve handing any federal money.
“Fortunately for me I came from within the agency,” he said.
Cox reached out to Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who proposed changes to the Hatch Act in 2011. Lugar was not one of the authors of the bill that Congress eventually passed.
O’Hanlon said the Office of Special Counsel began asking Congress to change the law more than a year ago so that candidates no longer could use the act to challenge opponents’ eligibility. The office also didn’t believe it was the federal government’s place to tell local communities who was eligible to run for positions such as sheriff, city council or school board, she said.
O’Hanlon said Cox’s story wasn’t unique. Her office regularly receives complaints from across the country about potential conflicts of interest under the Hatch Act, which were not the kinds of conflicts the law was intended to prevent. In Pennsylvania, for example, a police officer who worked with a police dog that was partly paid for by federal funding wasn’t allowed to run for school board because of the law.
It was suspected that many of the complaints filed under the Hatch Act came from candidates’ opponents. Complainants can give their name or remain anonymous, O’Hanlon said.
Hardin said no one challenged his qualifications when it was time for him to run for re-election in 2008, but he decided not to run after looking into the Hatch Act on his own.
Shortly after he was elected to the city council in 2004, he accepted a job as a project manager with the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration. Hardin wasn’t paid with federal money, nor did he directly work with federal grants. But he wanted to be sure he wouldn’t be in violation of the law, so he asked the Office of Special Counsel whether he was qualified to run for re-election.
He was told that if he ran he would be in violation of the act.
“It’s hard to do a what-if, but I would have benefited from that change back in 2008,” he said.