WASHINGTON -- The Senate is poised to eliminate barriers preventing an estimated 3 million federal workers from fully exercising their political freedoms.
Congress prohibited workers from engaging in partisan political activities when the Hatch Act was enacted in 1939. The statute grew out of fear that selecting public servants on the basis of their political affiliation rather than merit was undermining the development of the professional civil service.
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday approved the measure that would allow federal employees to actively participate in political campaigns during their hours away from work.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, the committee chairman, now goes to the full Senate for action.
Diane Witiak, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Government Employees, praised the committee's action and said the proposed measure "puts federal workers on an equal footing" with other citizens. She said federal workers have been treated as second-class citizens for far too many years.
Tom Fahey, director of communications for the American Postal Workers Union, said enactment of the measure is one of the union's top priorities. Both Mr. Fahey and Ms. Witiak were very optimistic that the plan would succeed.
There is little doubt that both the full Senate and House of Representatives will approve the measure. Both overwhelmingly approved similar measures during the 101st Congress. But the Senate failed to override President Bush's veto of the measure by a slim two-vote margin. The deciding votes were cast by senators who voted in favor of the plan when it was first approved.
President Bush has threatened to veto the measure this year, too. And it is uncertain if the Senate has the two-thirds majority necessary to override a veto.
During a March 4 committee work-session on the bill, Mr. Glenn called the current practice of denying federal workers their full political rights a "game of trivial confusion."
He said "it is long past time" for the federal government to change the Hatch Act and "practice what we preach" by allowing federal workers the right to actively participate in the political process.
"Protection [of federal workers from political coercion] should not violate constitutional rights," Mr. Glenn said.
Describing his measure as "The Election Confusion Correction Act," Mr. Glenn said his bill draws a fine line between what is permitted and what is prohibited with regards to a federal worker's participation in the political process.
He claimed his measure would eliminate the confusion and ambiguity clouding the Hatch Act, adding that Congress needs to "reform and clarify the rights of federal workers."
The current law allows federal employees to display campaign signs on their front lawns but forbids them from waving them at a political rally or at a convention. Workers can put a campaign bumper sticker on their car but can't give one to a friend. They can attend a political convention but cannot be a delegate.
The Senate's five freshmen are likely to be a major factor in sealing the bill's fate.
If four of the five vote exactly as their predecessors did, which is likely since three of them are Republicans replacing Republicans, the Senate would be one vote shy of overriding a veto.
Senate Republicans who oppose the measure have already done a fair share of foot-dragging. Sen. William V. Roth, R-Del., the ranking minority member, delayed final committee action on the measure by proposing six amendments, all of which he described in excruciating detail and all of which were soundly defeated by the committee.
Also, the March 4 work session was ended after two hours because of objections raised by Republican senators. The committee also had trouble establishing a quorum on a few occasions.