In 1939, Senator Carl Hatch from New Mexico authored legislation, the Hatch Act, that prohibits federal employees from engaging in certain kinds of partisan political activity. Its purpose is to ensure that government employees aren’t doing partisan political work on the taxpayer’s dime.
It seems like a laudable goal. This longstanding law has been a thorn in the side of the Trump administration. Dan Scavino, the White House social media director, was reprimanded for an alleged violation when he sent a tweet encouraging a primary challenger to Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan. An ethics watchdog filed a complaint against U.N. Ambassador and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, for her retweet of Trump’s endorsement of Ralph Norman for Congress in South Carolina.
Now, the President’s “voter integrity” commission, led by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is likewise facing Hatch Act complaints because Kobach is simultaneously running as a candidate for Governor in 2018.
The Hatch Act’s intent, is to draw a distinction between career civil service jobs as opposed high-level political appointees who are inseparable from partisan politics. That’s why act specifically exempts the president, vice president, and cabinet secretaries. What keeps getting the Trump administration into hot water, however, are the mid-level political appointees not including in those exemptions.
A law like the Hatch Act might make sense to keep the civil service nonpartisan. But these are not civil servants. Scavino is literally Trump’s former golf caddy, and is in a key political position within the White House. Haley is a former Governor and the nation’s top ambassador. Kobach is likewise a career politician, and the job Trump gave him is inherently political. They are all political appointees, and part of their job is carrying out the President’s political agenda.
It’s understandable why activists are keen to nail the administration on ethics charges, and the ethics problems inside the White House are numerous. However, it’s hard to square the intent of the Hatch Act with using it to ensnare people whose jobs are inherently and publicly political. That’s particularly the case over things as trivial as comments on Twitter.
It would not be amiss for Congress to revisit and revise the Hatch Act, which was last done in 2012. The current statute doesn’t reflect the realities of 21st Century governance and politics. The law itself will fall into disrespect and disuse if Congress does not amend it:
It shouldn’t become a weapon to impose a gag order on the president’s closest surrogates and political appointees.
(Photo of Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state, arriving for his meeting with president-elect at Trump International Golf Club, November 20, 2016 in Bedminster Township, New Jersey, by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)