Congress, Clinton ready to lift lid of Hatch Act ON POLITICS


WASHINGTON -- Another victim of the gridlock of split responsibility between a Republican president and a Democratic Congress appears certain to be broken in light of the overwhelming House vote to revise the Hatch Act.

With a Democrat in the White House for the first time in 12 years, the long fight to repeal the law barring most political participation by federal employees is expected to sail through the Senate and be signed by President Clinton later this year.

The proponents, led in the House by Democratic Rep. William Clay of Missouri, argue that the issue is purely one of First Amendment rights, and that the 3 million federal postal and civil service employees covered are denied theirs by the law.

The opponents, led by Republican Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, contend that the prohibition of political activity is essential to protect against politicizing government service and using federal employees and the influence they can wield from corrupting elections.

But as you might suspect, there are basic political considerations involved, prominently including GOP concerns that most federal employees and their unions favor the Democrats. Two recent Republican presidents, Gerald Ford in 1974 and George Bush in 1990, have vetoed congressional votes to repeal.

The Democratic vote in the House the other day seemed to bear out that political reading, with 247 for repeal and only two against. But the Republicans split almost evenly, 85 for and 84 against, suggesting that the old political argument against "unhatching" federal employees may have lost much of its steam. Either that, or many House Republicans figured there was no sense in alienating federal employees in their districts on a vote they were going to lose anyway.

Whatever the current political aspects of the repeal effort, there is no doubt that politics was at the core of the original enactment of the Hatch Act in 1939. Its chief author was Sen. Carl Hatch of New Mexico, a conservative Democrat who survived a party effort to defeat him in 1938.

Hatch charged that local employees of the New Deal's WPA (Works Progress Administration) had been mobilized and in some cases coerced into voting against him. The same basic allegation was raised involving the WPA in the re-election campaign of Sen. Alben Barkley of Kentucky, FDR's candidate, against Gov. A.B. "Happy" Chandler.

The Kentucky charges led to a Senate investigation dominated by critics of the New Deal that found that some WPA workers had been pressured to vote for Barkley and to contribute to his campaign. At the same time, however, Chandler had raised even more money from state employees, so the issue was a wash and Barkley won.

However, sentiment among conservative Democrats and Republicans against President Franklin D. Roosevelt fueled support for legislation offered by Hatch to bar federal employees from political involvement. FDR, seeing the handwriting on the wall, supported and eventually signed the bill.

As originally passed by the Senate, the legislation would also have barred the president, vice president and all members of Congress from participating in political activity. The patently nonsensical proposition was quickly stricken in the House, which then passed the bill.

If the repeal reaches President Clinton's desk and is signed, it's not clear that it will be a major political boon to the Democrats. The pending legislation has provisions designed to safeguard federal employees from political pressures from their bosses and would bar workers' political contributions to them. It would also prohibit federal employees from using the influence of their jobs to affect any election or other political activity. Political pressure, however, can take many subtle forms.

Backers of repeal argue that its most significant impact would be at the local level, where federal workers would be free to work in campaigns and even run for office. But they still would be barred from holding federal or state offices.

Federal employees have long complained about being "hatched." But the act has also given them protection against unwanted appeals to take part in political activities or to make campaign contributions. It has been an easy out for them to say they are "hatched." They may not, though, be able to use that alibi much longer.

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