Kelley Reflects on Gains from Hatch Act Reform


10/18/07: NTEU played a key role more than a decade ago in reforming the Hatch Act. NTEU President Colleen Kelley today reflected on the considerable positive impact those changes have had in fostering greater participation by federal employees in the nation’s civic life.

The Hatch Act governs the activities of federal employees in political matters; prior to the 1994 amendments to the law, federal employees were effectively barred from taking part in political activities.

President Kelley offered her assessment of the functioning of the Hatch Act in the post-reform period in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia. The subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii).

“It took almost twenty years of hard work by NTEU and other organizations to amend the Hatch Act, to overcome all the dire predictions of what would happen if we let federal employees participate in their government’s political structure,” she said. “After all the speeches and hand-wringing, however, the Hatch Act amendments of 1994 have been a great success.”

Notwithstanding that success, however, and in light of an increasingly-narrow interpretation of the Hatch Act by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) in recent years, Kelley said there remain a number of “gray areas” in the Hatch Act often leaving federal employees “so confused about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable that they choose not to exercise any rights at all.”

She recommended some relatively minor but important changes in the law, including: 

  • Codifying what is known as the "water cooler" rule. The current Special Counsel rescinded an earlier advisory opinion allowing federal employees to communicate by e-mail about political subjects within narrow parameters. Such an e-mail message could be considered a substitute for permissible, face-to-face expression of personal opinion, which is not prohibited by the law. On this important matter, “we disagree with the current Special Counsel’s interpretation of the law,” Kelley said.  
  • Clarifying the union’s right to conduct non-partisan voter registration drives at the worksite. If the drive is non-partisan, Kelley said, “no other factors should be relevant.”