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What Is the Hatch Act and Why Was Established in 1939?

September 22, 2020 in History

By Lesley Kennedy

The 1939 law was created in the wake of a scandal involving FDR and federal employees of the Works Progress Administration.

The Hatch Act was signed into law in 1939 to keep federal employees from engaging in political activities while they’re on the job. It was also designed to ensure federal employees don’t face political pressures as they perform their work. While numerous federal employees have been cited with violating the act over the years, high-ranking political appointees have rarely faced any repercussions.

The act was initially passed in reaction to a scandal during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Sponsored by, and named after, New Mexico Senator Carl A. Hatch, a Democrat nicknamed “Cowboy Carl,” the legislation defines political activity as “any activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group. Violations of the Hatch Act carry serious penalties, which may result in disciplinary action or removal from Federal employment.”

FDR Ally Promised Jobs, Promotions for Campaigning

President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, head of the Works Progress Administration, at work in the White House study.

Donald Sherman, deputy director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and former senior counsel on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, says the Hatch Act was created following concern that FDR had pressured federal employees from the Works Progress Administration, a relief agency, into working on campaigns of candidates who were his allies or supporters.

According to Time magazine, Harry Hopkins, the director of the WPA and a Roosevelt crony, “had promised jobs and promotions within the WPA in exchange for votes in the U.S. Senate election in Kentucky. During the Great Depression, such promises would have carried great weight.”

The federal government, Sherman says, is supposed to not only represent, but also serve all Americans regardless of their party affiliation.

“The other function of the Hatch Act is preventing, say a veteran who calls the local VA about services, or someone who calls the CDC for information about COVID-19, from being asked the question, ‘Well, are you a Republican or a Democrat? Do you support, or will you support, this president?’” he says.

President and VP Exempt From Parts of Hatch Act

According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which oversees violation complaints, except for the president and vice …read more


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