The Hatch Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Hatch Act was an attempt by Congress to take an additional step in de-politicizing the non-elective positions in the American government. The act outlawed partisan political activity by federal government employees or any actions on their part that would interfere with open, fair, and honest elections. While the national government had grown rapidly prior to the Great Depression, throughout the 1930s millions of individuals had been added to the government payroll through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the larger Works Progress Administration (WPA). Fearful that President Franklin Roosevelt might somehow use these individuals to assist in his re-election campaign and amid accusations that some Democratic congressional candidates had already done so in the 1938 elections, the Hatch Act was passed to limit political participation by virtually all (non-elected) federal employees. Named for the primary Senate sponsor, Senator Carl Hatch (Democrat from New Mexico), Congress passed the bill to regulate the activities of government employees, in order to preserve the integrity of elections and protect those same employees from potential political abuse. This law has continued to serve as an effective buffer between partisan politics and those seeking to focus their efforts on providing efficient government services.

Summary Overview

The Hatch Act was an attempt by Congress to take an additional step in de-politicizing the non-elective positions in the American government. The act outlawed partisan political activity by federal government employees or any actions on their part that would interfere with open, fair, and honest elections. While the national government had grown rapidly prior to the Great Depression, throughout the 1930s millions of individuals had been added to the government payroll through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the larger Works Progress Administration (WPA). Fearful that President Franklin Roosevelt might somehow use these individuals to assist in his re-election campaign and amid accusations that some Democratic congressional candidates had already done so in the 1938 elections, the Hatch Act was passed to limit political participation by virtually all (non-elected) federal employees. Named for the primary Senate sponsor, Senator Carl Hatch (Democrat from New Mexico), Congress passed the bill to regulate the activities of government employees, in order to preserve the integrity of elections and protect those same employees from potential political abuse. This law has continued to serve as an effective buffer between partisan politics and those seeking to focus their efforts on providing efficient government services.

Defining Moment

The government of the United States was established, under the Constitution, to serve all the people of the nation. Elected members of the government were chosen by the citizens, based upon the policies and ideology espoused by the candidates. Although individuals already holding office could point to their accomplishments, it was not anticipated that these individuals working for the government would use the powers of their office to coerce voters into giving the incumbents their votes. The small size of the national government, for the first several decades of the history of the United States, limited its potential influence on voters, but even President Jefferson felt compelled to address the issue, warning federal employees not to use their positions to try to influence elections. Although the “spoils system,” in which federal employees were hired or fired at the discretion of the president, tended to fill government posts with politically active individuals, restraint was expected of most while working for the government. The passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883 was a major step toward ending the “spoils system,” by making the hiring merit based for many federal jobs. President Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order making the separation between federal employment and partisan politics clearer. With the passage of the Hatch Act in 1939, this separation became established by law, protecting employees from being forced to assist, under the threat of losing their jobs, in electoral politics. Conversely, it also kept government officials from interfering with electoral activities on their own initiative.

President Franklin Roosevelt's second term (1937–1941) was the most difficult for him, in terms of domestic politics. Having lost a key advisor, Roosevelt ineptly tried to change the law regarding membership on the Supreme Court and was defeated, even though Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. This defeat of a Roosevelt proposal seemed to give Democrats who disagreed with him the strength to oppose him on other issues. Republican gains in the midterm elections of 1938 strengthened the anti-Roosevelt forces considerably. Although no investigation conclusively proved that Roosevelt or other Democrats used WPA workers to help election efforts in 1938, enough charges had been made that many observers were worried over the upcoming 1940 elections. (Because WPA jobs were not permanent, people believed these workers could be coerced to work on partisan politics more easily than regular federal workers.) As a result, a coalition of Congressional members (conservative Democrats, Republicans, and anti-patronage Democrats) passed the Hatch Act as a precaution against possible future electoral tinkering. Although he had not supported its passage, Roosevelt signed the legislation with a strong statement of support for its goals.

Author Biography

The Hatch Act, (“Hatch Political Activity Act: An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities”) was passed by the Seventy-sixth Congress of the United States on August 2, 1939. At that time, both houses were firmly under the control of the Democratic Party, although that party was divided between the more liberal, Roosevelt faction and conservative Democrats, who tended to be from Southern states. Of the ninety-six senators, sixty-eight were Democrats; and in the House of Representatives, 256 of the 435 members were Democrats. Senator Carl Hatch was a conservative Democrat from New Mexico and was the primary author of the legislation. A senator since 1933, he had previously served as a tax collector, state judge, and an examiner for the New Mexico bar. After his retirement from the Senate in 1949, he was appointed a US district judge.

Document Analysis

Although it has been amended several times since 1939, the Hatch Act (Public Law 76–252) has been a basic policy of the federal government since it was signed into law. The dual protections that were written into the law, for employees and for those active in the electoral process, have strengthened the ability of the government to serve the citizens and strengthened democracy in the United States. While some have complained about the limitations the law has placed on government employees' political activities, most have seen it as an important step toward insuring good and fair government. By and large, patronage positions were clearly outlawed under the act, except for high-level positions reporting to the president. Similarly, federal employees could not be active in party politics in activities ranging from speaking for mainstream candidates up to and including assisting groups that advocated violent revolution.

The Pendleton Act and later presidential orders had made most of the positions in the US government's executive branch into civil service positions, with hiring based on merit. However, there were individuals who did not follow the intention of the law, even if they did not blatantly break it. The merit system was strengthened through the Hatch Act, by its outlawing of promises regarding “employment, position, work, compensation, or other benefit” (including the denial of such benefits) to those in or seeking government employment. This was especially important for temporary programs, such as the WPA. Because the issue had arisen in connection with WPA increases before the 1938 elections, “public-works projects” were specifically mentioned in the text of the law as an area in which it was illegal to use public funds to coerce individuals in their vote. Thus, with the implementation of the Hatch Act, federal employees gained specific protection from anyone who might want to force them to participate in the political process.

At the same time, the law limited an employee's voluntary participation in partisan politics. Erring on the side of caution, the law's drafters strictly limited federal employees' political activities. Donations to political causes, or other visible support of politicians, were not allowed. The prohibition against taking part “in political campaigns” was interpreted broadly by law enforcement officials. One of the most extreme consequences, dismissal, was reserved for employees found to belong to political groups seeking the overthrow of the US government; at the time, this was understood to mean the Communist Party and certain fascist organizations. However, few people held such extreme views; therefore, for most employees, the law limited only their overt participation in partisan politics.

The other impact of the law was to limit the direct use of one's position to attempt to affect the outcome of elections. Anyone who tried to “use his official authority for the purpose of interfering with, or affecting the election or nomination” of individuals for federal position was in violation of the Hatch Act. In 1940, this was expanded to state elections as well. Sharing lists of people active in federally funded programs was also prohibited, as this information might be used by political operatives to coerce the participants in the programs. Section 9 of the act lists high-level administrators in the executive branch who are exempt from the law. Overall, the law attempts to balance the needs of the nation with those of individual employees, yet it does so by tilting slightly in the direction of electoral fairness over the capacity of individuals (i.e., employees) to act freely in the political arena.

Essential Themes

Although in American politics incumbents win re-election a very high percentage of the time, one intention of the Hatch Act was to keep that tendency from becoming a virtual certainty. If government officials could use their employees as workers in their re-election campaigns, whether the workers wanted this or not, it would give such officials an overwhelming advantage at the ballot box. In addition, there could be situations, without the law, where government officials could coerce average citizens into supporting the officials because of their position, or because of information from government files, which the campaign could use against the average citizen. The Hatch Act was a bold attempt to keep both of these situations from occurring. It was an effort to keep coercion out of politics. The amendments of 1940, 1993, and 2012, did not result in any major changes to the law. By accepting a position in the federal government, or taking federal funding for one's program, the individual gives up certain First Amendment rights. The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Hatch Act, asserting that the tradeoff of limiting employee rights in order “to protect a democratic society” is justified as a necessary component of good government–particularly since the employee retains the right to vote.

Thus, the bill has survived as the law of the land in the United States for several decades. The political fortunes of the Republican and Democratic parties have risen and fallen during that time, but neither has sought to change the essence of the law. The most recent amendments were attempts to bring the law up to date, reflecting the fact that federal funding had become pervasive throughout society and that a wider range of potential punishments should reflect the wider range of potential violations. With the advent of social media, for example, the potential for government employees to inadvertently violate the Hatch Act has become a much greater possibility. It is not easy to balance the need for fair electoral politics, including keeping possible coercive practices by government officials in check, with the rights of individuals who serve the public by working in government positions. The Hatch Act has been an attempt to do this in a manner beneficial to the majority. While not everyone has accepted this approach, it has had the support of both major political parties since it was signed into law.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Dunn, Susan. Roosevelt's Purge: How FDR Fought to Change the Democratic Party. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010. Print.
  • McElhatton, Jim. “Hatch Act Probe Nets Hundreds; Few Penalized.” Federal Times. Springfield, VA: Gannett Government Media Site, 2014. Web. 20 August 2014.
  • Office of Special Counsel. “Overview.” Hatch Act. Office of Special Counsel, n.d. Web. 20 August 2014.
  • Office of Special Counsel. Political Activity and the Federal Employee. Office of Special Counsel, 2005. Web. 20 August 2014.
  • Smith, Jason Scott. A Concise History of the New Deal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.
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