The Cat and the Canary

July 31, 1993

If there is one thing the federal government does not need is more politics. It needs less. Yet the Senate last week voted to amend the Hatch Act to allow federal civil servants to engage in political activity. The Senate bill would allow most executive branch and Postal Service employees to manage political campaigns, run for party offices, solicit campaign contributions from fellow workers. Yet it was abuse of this sort intermingling of partisan politics with governmental activity that produced the Hatch Act in 1939. Such abuse is just as possible today if the Civil Service is un-Hatched.

Democrats who pushed the bill through the Senate (and, earlier, the House) say the "reformed" Hatch Act will have enough penalties for abuse that "the cat won't eat the canary." But as Sen. William Roth, R-Del., said in debate, "The wrongs that will occur will not always be tangibly evident. You could place the cat under constant surveillance with a camera and see whether the cat eats the canary, but there is no way to photograph the thoughts, the mind, the anguish of the federal employee who believes that he is expected to take an active part in a political campaign."

And what of the anguish of taxpayers dealing with civil servants? Might they not be concerned when politics rears its ugly head? Senators did limit the politicking of federal employees in some very sensitive, influential positions, but amazingly the Senate voted down a proposal to keep the Hatch ban on auditors, examiners and agents of the Internal Revenue Service. Sen. Paul Sarbanes and Sen. Barbara Mikulski both voted to kill that proposal. (Had they voted the other way, that ban would have survived.)

Bad as the Senate bill is, the House version is worse. It allows federal employees to run not only for party offices but for local public office (not against members of Congress). It also allows them to solicit campaign contributions from the general public. How would you like to have your 1040 audited by someone who had approached you on his day off with a "Sarbanes '94" button on his lapel and a donor pledge card in his hand?

Democrats favor this legislation because polls and other studies show the federal bureaucracy to be overwhelmingly Democratic. President Clinton has promised to sign it. About all those who fear a return to the spoils system and other corruption can hope for is gridlock between House and Senate. Otherwise, even if the relatively mild Senate version of this un-Hatching effort becomes law, it is going to turn the canary of a politics-free Civil Service into an endangered species.

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