Federal agency closes Hatch Act loophole by enforcing White House violations internally

The rule change now gives the power to enforce the Hatch Act violations committed by White House personnel to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) instead of giving the president sole discretion in enforcing the act.

Published: May 20, 2024 10:44pm

The federal agency that investigates alleged Hatch Act violations is changing its enforcement policies by bringing cases internally instead of bringing recommendations to the president.

The Hatch Act, which bans federal employees from partaking in certain partisan political activities while in office, was passed in 1939. Its purpose is to "ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion." The Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) is in charge of investigating Hatch Act violations, but typically gave the president discretion in enforcing the act.

Special Counsel Hampton Dellinger said he has instructed his office to fully enforce the act against White House employees, breaking from decades of precedent. It comes after a government watchdog accused White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre of violating the act, by frequently using words like "MAGA Republicans." 

“After a careful review of past and present policies, I’m updating my agency’s enforcement approach to put an end to such differential treatment,” Dellinger wrote in an op-ed for Politico on Monday. “Though Congress has given the president broad hiring authority, once aides are onboarded, they are still bound by the same rules — from the tax code to conflicts-of-interest laws — that govern other federal employees ... The Hatch Act, with primarily civil sanctions, should be no different.”

The rule change now gives the power to enforce the Hatch Act violations committed by White House personnel to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). It also expands the enforcement of violations to people who are no longer federal employees, and bans federal employees and officials from wearing or displaying partisan merchandise at work. 

“These enforcement changes should provide clear guidance and bright-line rules to federal workers and the public,” Dellinger wrote. “And the goal with each is to adhere closely and faithfully to congressional mandates as well as relevant applications of the Hatch Act by the MSPB and the judiciary."

Dellinger also said he is loosening the restrictions on using certain words that federal employees can use when it correlates with policy issues as long as it does not include advocacy for or against a certain position. 

"Congress, like the courts, wants partisan politics out of the federal workplace and workers on the job to be mission oriented, not campaign focused," Dellinger said. "But lawmakers also have made clear that government employees should be able to speak on matters of policy in meaningful ways. As Special Counsel, I am committed to following and fulfilling these dual directives."

White House officials in both parties have been historically accused of violating the Hatch Act while their respective parties were in office.

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