Hackarama, or Back to the Spoils System

DEBRA J. SAUNDERS

March 10, 1993|By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS

San Francisco. -- Last week the House of Representatives voted to all but repeal the Hatch Act, which restricts the political activities of federal civil servants and postal workers.

If the bill is passed by the Senate and signed by President Clinton, which seems as inevitable as higher taxes, federal workers for the first time in more than 50 years would be able to run in partisan elections, serve as high-level ward heelers, raise campaign contributions for D.C. pols, manage partisan campaigns and administer political action committees -- as long as they don't operate on taxpayer time.

''Federal employees finally have become full-class citizens,'' quipped Rep. Patricia Schroeder, D-Colo. She said she was horrified to discover, when she started her first federal job, that she ''wasn't allowed to participate in anything I considered normal civic duties.''

Proponents of an unsuccessful 1990 repeal attempt noted that the Hatch Act is ''outrageously unconstitutional'' (credit Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.), despite three decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that it is con- stitutional. And: ''Government workers in the Soviet Union enjoy more freedom to practice politics than America's government workers.'' Rep. William Ford, D-Mich., failed to notice that Soviet workers didn't have the freedom to say no to political coercion.

In truth, being able to say no is the real beauty of the Hatch Act: It liberates federal workers from pressure from higher-ups to contribute to campaigns or work for campaigns on off-hours.

Common Cause, which opposes the repealer, noted that under the Hatch Act federal workers have been free to make political contributions, serve as rank-and-file members of parties and engage in non-partisan political activities.

''It is only the most active levels of partisan participation from which they are currently barred,'' observed Common Cause president Fred Wertheimer.

On the other hand, the group warned, the bill ''opens the door to implicit coercion and abandons the fundamental concept of an unpoliticized civil service.''

Congressional supporters claim that their votes are motivated by their deep respect for political expression and the rights of federal workers. But the House leadership originally introduced the bill under a gag rule that prohibited floor debate. So much for political expression. And more important: Members forgot to repeal the Hatch Act provision that prohibits federal workers from running for Congress.

How convenient. Actually, they didn't forget to repeal that provision, they passed an amendment by Rep. Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., specifically prohibiting federal workers from running for federal office, while allowing them to run in local partisan races. Now you'd think that if members really wanted to stand up for the political rights of federal workers, they would have allowed federal employees to run for Congress as well. Instead, they limited their changes to generously standing up for the right of each federal worker to raise money for the campaigns of members of Congress, to work on their campaigns and to serve as officers for parties that aid their campaigns.

Deficit hawks beware. How likely is it now that members will vote for substantive and painful spending cuts, after using federal workers to raise funds and work on the re-election bids of incumbents? Won't they reward their loyal campaign workers with continued funding?

And so, civil service government returns to the patronage, or ''spoils,'' system. Workers who don't cough up donations may jeopardize their careers. Federal offices become political branch offices. The rhetoric about civil rights for civil servants is all very pretty, but the reality is this: Say hello to hackarama.

Debra Saunders is a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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