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Legislation tweaking Hatch Act goes to White House

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The Merit Systems Protection Board would be able to mete out a wider range of punishments for Hatch Act violators under a bill that won final congressional approval today and now goes to President Obama for his signature.

Instead of firing violators–the only authorized penalty up to now unless the board unanimously opts for a different route–the MSPB  could issue formal reprimands; reduce violators’ pay grades; bar them from federal employment for up to five years; or fine them up to $1,000.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, sponsored the bill in the Senate; Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., handled it in the House. “These reforms will make the Hatch Act more fair and more effective,” Cummings said in a news release this afternoon.

The 1939 Hatch Act, (officially known, in case you were wondering, as “An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities”), generally bars feds from partisan political activity. It was seen both by Republicans and Democrats as needing a refresh, although the two sides differed on particulars. The status quo is “clear as mud,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., declared at a hearing last year of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he chairs. (Cummings is the top Democrat.) So far, however, Issa has not introduced any legislation.

Also pressing for change was Carolyn Lerner, head of the Office of Special Counsel, the agency charged with Hatch Act enforcement. At the law’s best, it keeps people in political power from abusing their positions, Lerner wrote in a New York Times op-ed. At its worst, she said, it prevents would-be candidates in state and local races from running for office because their jobs are in some trivial way tied to federal funding.

How trivial? Well, in one instance, a Pennsylvania policeman wanted to run for school board, but was told by Lerner’s office that the law wouldn’t allow it. His bomb-sniffing dog, after all, was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The newly passed bill would explicitly allow local and states candidate to run for partisan political office. Obama is expected to sign the bill.

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