Updated: September 2, 2020 9:12:04 am
During this week’s Republican National Convention, which ended with US President Donald Trump being formally nominated for re-election, many accused Trump, and senior members of his administration, of disregarding ethics norms meant to prevent government interference in political activity.
The four-day mega event had several unprecedented moments, such as Trump accepting the Republican nomination at the White House, his official residence, and appearances by sitting cabinet colleagues, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.
In pre-recorded messages, Pompeo endorsed Trump from Israel – a country that holds special significance during US elections – where he was present in his official capacity, and Wolf appeared with Trump at a naturalisation ceremony where five immigrants, including a sari-clad IT professional from India, were awarded US citizenship.
Experts believe that these instances are violations of the Hatch Act– a 1939 federal law that limits government meddling in partisan activities.
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What is the Hatch Act?
Ever since the United States was founded, leaders like Thomas Jefferson expressed concerns over political activities of government servants while on official duty. A federal law to address this issue was finally enacted in 1939 during the Great Depression era, and was named after Carl Hatch, a Senator from New Mexico state.
The law is enforced by the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC), an independent federal agency which also oversees various other laws applying to federal employees, and receives complaints about alleged violations.
The Act’s objectives, according to the OSC website, are to “ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation.”
The Hatch Act is regarded as a workplace guideline, and although flouting its provisions does not amount to a crime, punishments can be severe; career government employees can be terminated, demoted, or ordered to pay fines. Political appointees generally face less severe repercussions.
The US Supreme Court has held the Hatch Act as constitutionally valid and not in contravention of government employees’ right to freedom of speech.
So, did Trump violate the law?
The Act does not apply to the President and the Vice President of the US, but to all other civilian employees in the executive branch of the federal government.
While cases involving career employees are adjudicated by a federal agency called the Merit Systems Protection Board, the decision to terminate political appointees is taken by the President.
Since Trump came to office, critics have accused him of disregarding the Hatch Act on purpose, and few expect him to take action against alleged violators such as Pompeo and Wolf.
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Last year, Trump openly refused to punish Kellyanne Conway, among his top aides, despite the OSC describing her as a “repeat offender” of the Hatch Act.
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