The Hatch Act, Its Impact, and How It Applies in Professional Settings
Author Name: TrainingABC
Posted: 04-11-2023 01:36 AM
Synopsis: The Hatch Act was passed in 1939 in an effort to keep elections unbiased by removing political leanings from government funded organizations.
As an attempt to protect the foundations of democracy, keep elections unbiased, and remove political leanings from government-funded organizations, Congress passed The Hatch Act in 1939. This law banned those working in the public sector from distributing funds for election-related reasons and prohibited federal workers from trying to sway elections or obtain political support through the use of public funds or job offers.
Senator Carl Hatch, a representative from New Mexico, brought forward this law when he learned that funds from government programs were being used to support the Democratic candidates in the 1938 elections. Beyond regulating financial applications of federal funds, The Hatch Act limits individuals’ abilities to participate in political campaigns. Government employees cannot run for office, endorse political candidates, or raise money for campaigns, and this act is still in place today.
The Evolution of The Hatch Act
Over the course of history, The Hatch Act has been amended to better fit the needs of the times. Just a year after its inceptions, Congress broadened the reach of The Hatch Act to include state and local employees whose salaries came – in whole or in part – from federal funds. They also added campaign contribution limits for individuals that have careers covered by the act.
Years later, in 1993, Congress made The Hatch Act more lenient by allowing most federal employees to still engage in political management or related campaigns. This amendment made it easier for individuals to voice their political opinions more openly.
Specific Regulations Under the Act
It’s important to consider the delineation between individuals that are less restricted and individuals that follow stricter requirements. Some federal employees can engage in political activity on some level, while others are more tightly regulated. The FBI, CIA, and National Security Agency are a few agencies that are considered “further restricted” meaning they can’t campaign for or against any political candidates, host political events, or make political campaign contributions while working.
Less restricted employees are usually able to hold office in partisan settings, while further restricted employees may only join those organizations but cannot hold office.
Recently, social media guidelines had to be added to The Hatch Act, specifying what federal, state, and local employees could or could not post on their social media accounts. One great example of this is that sitting congressmen and women are not allowed to post endorsement messages even for themselves on their official government social media accounts. They can, however, have separate accounts where campaigning is allowed.
The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) is a governing agency that is responsible for enforcing The Hatch Act and working with employers to implement consequences for violations of the law. Violating The Hatch Act is not a criminal offense, and it is not handled in that manner. Instead, violators may face a fine or professional reprimand. Some employees have been removed from their positions after violating The Hatch Act, while others receive a “slap on the wrist” punishment.
These variations in punishments have faced scrutiny since the act was passed; critics claim that interpretations and consequences are biased. For some organizations, such as the Justice Department, oversight will exist within the OSC and further within the organization itself. These types of agencies often have strict rules and will enforce more intense penalties for Hatch Act violations.
Professionals on both sides of the aisle regularly face complaints about Hatch Act violations. Any individual can file a complaint with the OSC, and since these rules can come with ambiguity, it can be challenging to determine if actual violations happened. One very high-profile violation discussion centered around the former FBI Director, James Comey in 2016. He was accused of violating The Hatch Act when he briefed Congress on the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails at the end of the 2016 presidential campaign. Ultimately, he was not found in violation, but he received widespread criticism for his actions.
Recently, President Biden’s former White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki, faced a Hatch Act complaint when it was said that she seemed to endorse a candidate for the Virginia governor’s race while giving a White House press briefing. She apologized for her word choice and promised to be more careful in the future.
What Does This Mean for HR?
The Hatch Act only applies in government settings, though it can exist on the local, state, and federal levels. If you support an organization that must abide by the requirements of The Hatch Act, it’s important to know what it entails, how it’s enforced, and how to train your employees about it. Prevention is key with The Hatch Act; people need to know what they can and cannot say and do in different settings.
We recommend a regular Hatch Act briefing for all new employees that must abide by its requirements. On top of that, periodic training and reminder exercises are great for all employees, no matter how long they have been in the organization.
If a violation is found to be valid, your department may be responsible for working with the OSC to determine fair consequences on a case-by-case basis. Consequences may include a retracting statement, a fine, or even suspension or termination. How the law is applied will depend on the severity of the violation and its impact.
Anticipating the Future of The Hatch Act
As society continues to grow and change, The Hatch Act may face further amendments in the future to include new activities, different regulations, or even new consequences for those who violate the act. It’s best to stay up-to-date on current requirements in order to train employees how to avoid falling into a violation and help them stay aligned on expectations.
As HR professionals, anticipating challenges and resolving them before they arise is what our roles focus on, and this is another opportunity to do that. If you’re not sure whether The Hatch Act applies to your organization, reach out to the OSC to learn more.