In the United States, the Hatch Act has long served as bulwark against the corrosive intersection of partisan politics and government power. Signed into law in 1939, the Hatch Act was designed to combat the corruption associated with the so-called “spoils system,” in which politicians dole out valuable government jobs to their supporters, and those supporters are in return expected to use their government positions to benefit their political patrons. Civil service laws that create a “merit system” attack the spoils system from one direction, by making politically-motivated hiring and firing more difficult. Laws like the Hatch Act complement these efforts by prohibiting government employees from engaging in partisan political activities. More specifically, the Hatch Act prohibits any federal officer or employee (other than the President or Vice President) from engaging in political activity while acting under his or her “official authority or influence.” (This prohibition, as interpreted, covers any sort of partisan political activity while on the job, including displaying political paraphernalia, distributing campaign materials, and soliciting campaign contributions.) Penalties for violating the Hatch Act can include fines, demotion, suspension, removal from office, and temporary debarment from future federal service.
Since its enactment, compliance with the Hatch Act has generally been quite good. But that changed in January 2017, when President Trump took office. Throughout the Trump years, rampant violations of the Hatch Act plagued the federal government. High-level Trump Administration officials like Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Mike Pompeo, Kellyanne Conway, and Stephen Miller, among many others, engaged in likely Hatch Act violations, with no significant consequences. This exposed an uncomfortable truth: At least for high-level political appointees, the Hatch Act’s enforcement mechanisms are too week, and the penalties too negligible, to deter officials uninterested in complying with the law. Indeed, past compliance with the Act was likely more the product of government norms than fear of punishment.
Just to be clear, the situation is likely quite different for career civil servants who serve in government regardless of which political party holds the White House. With respect to these individuals, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the government, the Hatch Act’s prohibitions are strictly enforced, and the penalties are stiff. But for senior political appointees, the Trump Administration exposed glaring weaknesses in the Hatch Act’s efficacy, when the Administration has little interest in adhering to conventional norms of ethics and integrity. Two types of reform are needed: