Norton Bill Would Ease Some Hatch Act Rules

Posted March 21, 2007 at 5:32pm

In her latest maneuver to give the District of Columbia more say-so over its local affairs, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) introduced a measure this week to remove language from the Hatch Act that treats city officials as federal employees for investigation purposes.

The brainchild of former Sen. Carl Hatch (D-N.M.), the 1939 act is designed to restrict federal workers from taking part in partisan political activities, including running for partisan office or helping others on a campaign.

Federal workers nationwide are regularly investigated by the Office of Special Council under the act, while local governments across the country maintain their own Hatch Act requirements for local elected officials.

But under a little-noticed part of the legislation, those holding office in the D.C. government are considered federal workers, with the exception of the mayor, recorder of deeds and city councilmembers.

It’s a holdover from the era before home rule that Norton hopes to remove.

“My bill will eliminate the double indignity of placing a local burden on the federal government and depriving the District of a responsibility which only local jurisdictions familiar with local laws can be expected to handle responsibly,” Norton said.

Before the measure would go into effect, city leaders would be tasked with designing a localized Hatch Act to monitor partisan political activities.

Norton’s bill likely will be introduced in committee at the same time two other measures designed to give D.C. more autonomy are heard, Norton said.

All the bills are part of Norton’s “Free and Equal D.C.” series designed to eliminate Congressional control over local matters.

The first bill introduced this Congress seeks to give D.C. more control over its budget, while the second would end Congressional review of D.C.’s criminal and civil laws.

“Those are the major home rule issues in the Congress for the District of Columbia,” Norton said.

While the budget and legislative autonomy bills could prove contentious, Norton predicted the Hatch Act measure would easily make it through Congress.

The Hatch Act has caused problems for members of D.C.’s Advisory Neighborhood Commissions. Many of these unpaid, nonpartisan elected officials — who work on issues effecting their local community — eventually run for higher city office, most notably the City Council.

But if ANC commissioners don’t resign their posts before running, they are in violation of the Hatch Act, Norton said.

“It’s a policy issue that hasn’t caused enough trouble to get everybody’s attention,” Norton said. “Of course, you ask the ANC commissioners and they’ll tell you differently.”

Many ANC commissioners go unnoticed by the Office of Special Counsel, which is in charge of enforcing the Hatch Act, because OSC only launches investigations if a violation is reported, Norton said.

OSC “doesn’t go looking for you,” Norton said. “Somebody has to catch you, or bring attention to you.”

But investigations do happen.

When ANC 5C Commissioner Robert Brannum decided to run for City Council chairman last year, he found himself under investigation for violation of the Hatch Act.

Brannum eventually dropped out of the race after realizing he’d be breaking federal law.

“It seems to me that if you’re a public official, it’s hard to run for office if you’re in violation of a federal law,” Brannum told Roll Call last year.