As an employee of the Executive branch, I’m covered by what’s commonly known as the Hatch Act of 1939, otherwise known as An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, or Public Law 76-252. The intent of the Hatch Act is fairly straightforward, even if the means and methods by which it is enforced are somewhat murky. The act, essentially, says that as a federal employee, I cannot seek election to a partisan office for the duration of my employment and more importantly that I can’t use my official position or government time and equipment for purposes of campaigning, fundraising, promoting, or engaging in political activity while I’m “on the clock.”
Old Man Hatch had a pretty good idea about establishing and keeping the core of the civil service reasonably non-partisan as we transact the day to day business of government. Personally, I’ve I’ve never seen an employee willfully undermining the executive branch while on the clock in my tenure serving under both Republicans and Democrats, but I don’t know if that’s because of the Hatch Act or because we started killing off the spoils system in 1883 with the Pendelton Act. Of course how “non-partisan” the bureaucracy is when it comes to which parties and candidates it supports in our spare time is wide open for debate.
The Office of Special Counsel, supreme adjudicator of all things Hatch Act, has a number of laundry lists filled with what various types of executive branch employee may or may not do. What most of them boil down to is “don’t advocate for a particular candidate or party on government time.” It seems like a reasonable rule. It’s why you find me posting at all during the typical weekday it’s a funny, funny meme or a news article. I try very hard to live within Hatch’s spirit and intent as well as within its letter.
I do, however, want the record to show that being Hatched makes sitting quietly on social media on days like today a monumental exercise in self restraint. Something for which I don’t think we get nearly enough credit every other November.
Last night I posted an update to social media more or less decrying the utter toolishness of both candidates for governor in my beloved home state of Maryland and putting myself forward as just the right third party candidate. It’s a happy fiction for a number of reasons. Not the least of those is the simple fact that as a employee of the United States I am legally barred from running for partisan office on any level – local, state, or federal. It’s just one of the many fun and interesting rules that apply to me under what’s commonly called the Hatch Act which is backed up by the full might and authority of the US Office of Special Counsel. They are not to be trifled with.
The short version of what could be a long and painful story is that the Hatch Act, among other things, seeks to ensure career civil servants are officially above the political fray and not drug kicking and screaming back to the bad old days of the spoils system, where good party men were put into positions of authority throughout the working levels of government without much consideration given to their actual knowledge, skills, and abilities. The sentiment is spot on. Having a cadre of people who are not beholden to any particular party for advancement is an unquestionably good idea. The political appointees at echelons higher than reality stand as a great reminder of the caliber you may end up with when decisions are based purely on party affiliation.
The problem of course is that Hatch essentially prevents the small segment of the population who know the problems inherent with the system best from running for office and doing something about it. It’s really elegant in its own way. Hatch effectively keeps the people who know first hand the problems created by politicians from entering the arena in an effort to unseat those same politicians. I’d like to say that’s purely coincidental, but my core cynicism simply won’t allow it.
Sure, I can participate in the process. I can vote, I can canvas, I can put a giant sign on my lawn, but as long as I want to keep getting a check from my currently employer, I can’t even touch the idea of running for office. It’s a pity really. Federal employees get a black eye in most discussions. Some of it is deserved, but in my experience they’re a pretty average group of people. Some are pure oxygen thieves, most are somewhere in the middle of the bell curve, and a few are truly world class minds. It’s a real shame that some of those deep thinkers are barred from getting into positions where they could do more than rearrange deck chairs.