Another View: Rules schmules

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President Trump may believe that breaking rules is a way to show how broken our political system has become. However, the blatant disregard for laws and rules by which other presidents have had to follow raises fresh concerns about the longer view.

The Hatch Act may be an arcane law, but it is an important one. It restricts partisan political activity by U.S. federal employees, symbolizes the way America differs from authoritarian governments whose civil servants must stay in lock-step with those in power.

The Hatch Act has been getting a lot of attention lately as lawmakers and legal experts voice concern over the ways Trump mixes politics and official business, most recently with his decision to use the White House as the backdrop for his acceptance speech and other events during the Republican National Convention this week.

There also is concern about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo violating his own department policy by speaking at the convention — and doing it during a taxpayer-funded visit to Jerusalem, a place that's of keen interest to evangelical Christian voters. Ethics experts have criticized Trump and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf for staging a citizen naturalization event at the White House during the convention.

Where did the 80-year-old law originate? Former Sen. Carl Hatch, a Democrat from New Mexico, wrote the legislation in 1939 to limit partisan activity by federal employees to ensure the government functions fairly and effectively. The act became law after employees at the Works Progress Administration, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal, engaged in congressional election campaigns.

The act prohibits: running for office in partisan elections, sending or forwarding a partisan political email while on duty or in a federal workplace, engaging in political activity while wearing an official uniform or while using a government vehicle, using official authority to interfere with or influence an election, soliciting or receiving political contributions, wearing or displaying partisan political buttons, T-shirts or signs.

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It applies to all civilian employees in the executive branch of the federal government, except the president and the vice president. There are some other exceptions. Certain executive officials, such as presidential advisers or Cabinet officers, can engage in political activities during official working time as long as federal funds are not used. Any such official must reimburse the U.S. Treasury for federal resources used in campaign activities.

Career government officials found to have violated the Hatch Act can be fired, suspended or demoted, and fined up to $1,000, though few penalties are ever levied against federal employees.

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The Trump administration has made clear its feelings on the Hatch Act.

This week, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows dismissed it, telling Politico: "Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares."

The Office of Special Counsel, an independent government watchdog that monitors violations, has cited the president's top advisers on multiple occasions for violating the act. In 2018, the watchdog found six White House officials in violation for tweeting or retweeting the president's 2016 campaign slogan "Make America Great Again" from their official Twitter accounts.

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Last year, the office sent a letter to the president saying Kellyanne Conway had violated the act during official media appearances by making statements aimed at helping reelect Trump. Special counsel Henry Kerner, a Trump appointee, recommended firing Conway, saying that her actions "if left unpunished, send a message to all federal employees that they need not abide by the Hatch Act's restrictions." Conway responded, "Blah, blah, blah. ... If you're trying to silence me through the Hatch Act, it's not going to work. Let me know when the jail sentence starts."

Trump has said giving his acceptance speech at the White House is well within the law because the Hatch Act doesn't pertain to the president. The Office of the Special Counsel said in a statement released Wednesday that there are certain areas of the White House where the Hatch Act does not prohibit federal employees from engaging in political activity, among them the South Lawn and Rose Garden. It is true, the Hatch Act does not apply to the president and vice president, but that misses the point.

Inevitably, White House staffers had to be involved in the logistics for setting up and delivering the speech. ... Federal employees are flatly barred from participating in political activities. And pressuring them to do so is a criminal violation under the law.

And it sends another message to the world: Rules don't apply here.

— The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, Aug. 29


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