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Ask Civics 101: What is the Hatch Act?


This week, The Office of the Special Council has announced an investigation into Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos for violating the Hatch Act. This is not the first time a member of the Trump administration has faced such an accusation, the OSC found former White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway guilty of repeated violations.

But what is the Hatch Act? When was it created? It's purpose is to restrict political speech from any federal employee (from members of the Cabinet to USPS employees) while they are working, but what are the penalties? Who is exempt from it? And finally, has anyone been fired for violating it?

When was it created?

The Hatch Act was proposed by Democratic Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico, and became law in 1939. Hatch and other conservative Democrats accused several members of the Works Progress Administration of using federal funds to campaign for progressives during the 1938 election. President Franklin Roosevelt nearly vetoed the Act, but signed it on the last possible day.

What does it do?

The Hatch Act prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activities while they are working in an official capacity. This helps establish the federal government as an entity for the people, not one party or another.  It also prevents federal employees from gaining power and favor by publicly supporting other people currently in power.

Now, this is not to say federal employees cannot have political opinions. They just cannot voice them while they're at work. The Office of the Special Counsel, which oversees Hatch Act violations, has very specific guidelines as to when and where certain employees may express political speech. The OSC has very thorough and understandable guidelines and an FAQ, which everyone (especially federal employees) should check out. 

To whom does it apply?

The Hatch Act appliles to every federal employee of the Executive branch, with the exception of the President and the VP. This goes from top to bottom; from the Secretary of State to your local postal carrier. It even extends to some state officials, providing their salaries are paid for through the federal government.

What are the penalties for violating it?

Prior to 2012, there were only two possible penalties; a 30-day suspension from office or removal from office. However, President Obama amended the Act with myriad penalties dependent on the type of violation. 

Has anyone been fired for violating it?

Many federal employees have been fined or lost their job for violating the Act, but most of them worked in lower-level positions. Higher-level officials, such as former White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, were found guilty of violating the act, but the White House took no action.


If you have a question for Ask Civics 101, drop us a line at civics101@nhpr.org.