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Has the Hatch Act lost its teeth?

Back in June, the Office of Special Counsel claimed that White House advisor Kellyanne Conway had violated the Hatch Act. They recommended she should be removed from her post. But six months later, Conway is still working for the White House. It seems unlikely she will face censure anytime soon.

Does this mean the Hatch Act has lost its teeth? Not quite. There are plenty of reasons federal employees should still heed the law.

What is the Hatch Act?

When it reported on the Office of Special Counsel’s rebuke of Conway’s actions, the Washington Post offered a nice summary of the Hatch Act:

“If you work for a federal agency, you can’t use your taxpayer-funded office to advocate your political beliefs.”

More broadly, the Hatch Act is a federal law that limits the political activities of federal employees. As the Office of Special Counsel notes, the law is meant to ensure that:

  • Federal work is performed in a nonpartisan fashion
  • Employees receive protection from political coercion
  • Employees don’t see their careers suffer due to politics instead of merit

There are exemptions for the President and Vice President, but the law applies to nearly everyone else in federal government. It also applies to some state and local government officials who work with federal funding.

Notably, the Hatch Act is not a criminal law. People who violate the law do not face criminal charges. Instead, it is an administrative law, and people who violate the law can face disciplinary measures from their employers.

The most high-profile cases are the most unusual

The news rarely covers the Hatch Act, except when high-profile figures are involved. But the Office of Special Counsel works continually to enforce the law. Many employees have had to take their cases to the Merit Systems Protection Board in response to possible Hatch Act violations.

Of course, there’s a key difference between these cases and those that make the news – the employer. Most employees report to employers who are themselves subject to the Hatch Act. But the White House, no matter who holds office, has historically been more reluctant to discipline offenders.

What do federal employees need to know?

The Office of Special Counsel has a Hatch Act FAQ that covers such common concerns as fundraising and social media. Employees generally need to be more careful during election years.

Federal employees should take the Hatch Act seriously

While some federal employees may appear to flaunt the Hatch Act and get away with it, most cannot. Punishments can range from fines to firing, so it’s generally in your interest to follow the law and defend yourself against undue charges.

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