Republicans and Democrats in the House are planning legislation to reform the Hatch Act, the federal law restricting federal employees from doing partisan work on the taxpayer’s dime. And two former Bush administration officials think the Obama administration’s White House meetings with Wall Street executives might have broken the laws on the books.
Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-MD) doesn’t often agree with House Oversight Chair Darrell Issa (R-CA). But they both agreed at a House Oversight hearing on Tuesday that the rules on the activities of federal employees needed to be updated.
Cummings said that he would work with Issa and the Office of Special Counsel on bipartisan legislation to update and clarify the Hatch Act.
“The witnesses before us today will express concern that the report issued by the Office of Special Counsel in January was unfair because it established a new interpretation of the Hatch Act that employees were unaware of prior to the report,” Cummings said. “Many other federal employees feel the same way: they find themselves penalized after the fact for actions that they did not realize were against the rules.”
Ana Galindo-Marrone, the Hatch Act Unit Chief at OSC, said that the agency would work with Congress if they decided to reform the act. But government watchdog groups are skeptical of the effort.
“Past experience has shown that when Hill people talk about reform, they often seek to weaken it,” Meredith McGehee told TPM in an email. “So any efforts at reform probably need to be looked at with a fair degree of skepticism.”
McGehee, who worked on Hatch Act reform when she was at Common Cause, said her sense was that “rank-and-file federal employees take the Hatch Act quite seriously but get disheartened when they see the upper echelons and political appointees being active.”
Galindo-Marrone said that her agency issued guidance on the use of social media by federal employees because of a rise in questions over the past year.
“Some of the issues, for example, include what employees can post on their Facebook page or in Tweets. Also issues about soliciting on their Facebook page — what if a friend posts something on their page that is a solicitation, are they responsible to remove that post or not,” Galindo-Marrone said.
She added that employees were confused as to whether they can list their position on their Facebook profiles. She said OSC made efforts to educate the workforce about the rules guiding their activity, but there was only so much they could do.
“It’s a big federal government workforce, and we’re a small agency,” she said.
Galindo-Marrone also revealed that received 526 complaints of inappropriate political activity in fiscal year 2010, compared to 496 complaints in 2009.
Two former Bush administration officials testified on the Oversight panel. One of the officials said that a White House meeting that Obama held with Wall Street executives back in March came close to violating the Hatch Act.
“I’m strongly of the view, and I know that the law is not this way, that the law should prohibit partisan political activity by executive branch employees other than the president and the vice president,” Richard Painter said.
“If the DNC is setting up the meeting, that is a political meeting,” Painter said. “I would never have agreed to have such a meeting going on in the White House.”
Scott Coffina said that it was unclear why the Democratic National Committee would have organized a meeting to solicit advice on the economy and said it “seems to walk a fine line between official and political, with all of the attendant Hatch Act concerns.”
Issa called for any reform of the Hatch Act to have a carve out for any contact necessary for security purposes.