Office of Special Counsel wants Hatch Act overhaul

Carolyn Lerner, Office of Special Counsel

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

The law governing the political activity of federal employees is an anachronism in today’s technology-driven world and “desperately needs to be updated,” the head of the Office of Special Counsel, Carolyn Lerner, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris.

OSC has sent draft legislation of a Hatch Act overhaul to Congress.

Carolyn Lerner/Photo:

The original law was created in 1939.

“Roosevelt was president and typewriters were about the most advanced means of communication,” Lerner said.

But the original aims of the legislation, last updated in 1993, were noble: to get politics out of the federal government and ensure the protection of the merit system for federal employees, Lerner said.

“The law desperately needs to be updated. What we’re seeing now is unfair results and probably unintended consequences that were never meant to be part of the act,” she added.

OSC’s proposed update is two-pronged. It would:

  • Remove OSC from enforcing the Hatch Act for state and local elections. Now, local officials who in any way receive federal funding are bound by the Hatch Act’s prohibition on seeking political office. But it often keeps qualified candidates out of the field. “We don’t want to be in the business of telling people they can’t run for sheriff or school board,” Lerner said.
  • Change the penalty structure for employees found in violation. Now, Lerner said, “termination is the presumptive penalty,” meaning for a range of offenses, the common punishment is firing. Lerner said OSC wants to see a range of penalties, from warnings and fines to suspensions.

Reception on the Hill

The office introduced its proposal to Congress last week. Lerner said she’s hopeful it will be embraced on the Hill.

“Our sense is that there’s going to be strong bipartisan support,” she said. The office is in contact with several members of Congress who have voiced support for the overhaul.

“This is a piece of legislation that would be good for the government, it would not cost any money and I think it’s really a bipartisan issue,” Lerner said. And we hope that there’ll be lots of bipartisan support.”