The District's nonvoting member of Congress is hoping to divorce the city from aspects of a law that limits federal employees' political activities as the city gains traction in efforts to increase the distance between local affairs and controlling hands on Capitol Hill.
The Hatch Act prohibits both federal and D.C. government employees from running for partisan political office, collecting political contributions or hosting campaign fundraisers, and from using any government resources for political activities, according to the D.C. Office of the Attorney General.
The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs debated the Hatch Act Modernization Act from Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, on Wednesday. The bill would allow employees in state or local governments to run in partisan elections, even if their positions are federally funded. It would also stop treating D.C. employees like full-fledged federal workers.
"I don't think that it is fair that they are treated differently from other state and local employees," said Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican and committee member.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who can introduce bills in the House but not vote on them, is pushing Mr. Akaka's bill so the District can rely on its own version of the Hatch Act — the Prohibition on Government Employee Engagement in Political Activity Act of 2010. Following the District's version of the law would clear up confusion in enforcing the federal version.
While enforcing the Hatch Act, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel has injected itself into the District's electoral process when advisory neighborhood commissioners ran for D.C. Council seats, Mrs. Norton said.
"They treated them as if they are federal employees," she said.
The D.C. Council passed its law in anticipation of similar federal legislation during the previous Congress, but an anonymous hold in the Senate prevented its enactment, Mrs. Norton said. The local law prohibits city employees from engaging in political activities while on duty, soliciting campaign contributions or filing for election to a partisan political office.
"All I was after was making sure the District had its own Hatch Act," Mrs. Norton said. "There's confusion as to how the law applies to D.C."
Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent and committee chairman, postponed voting on Mr. Akaka's reform bill to resolve a disagreement over whether it should relax prohibitions on state and local workers who are fully funded by the federal government.
But Mr. Lieberman called out to Mrs. Norton in the audience to assure her the D.C. portion of the bill enjoys broad support.
"That's not the problem, and we'll work on this in the interim," Mr. Lieberman said.
The committee approved one of Mrs. Norton's other priorities: a bill providing the city more flexibility in scheduling special elections to fill vacancies.
Mrs. Norton introduced the District of Columbia Special Election Reform Act to allow the city to schedule a special election between 70 and 174 days after a vacancy is declared. Right now, the law mandates a special election on the first Tuesday at least 114 days after the declaration.
City officials asked Mrs. Norton to introduce the measure when they could not roll the special election to replace former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, into this month's previously scheduled primary election. Thomas resigned in January after pleading guilty to stealing public funds. The city must spend about $360,000 — ironically, close to the amount that Thomas admitted to stealing from the District — to hold the election on May 15.
Members of the Senate committee who debated both of Ms. Norton's priorities also provided a key assist to the District's ongoing bid for budget autonomy.
Mr. Lieberman on Tuesday introduced a bill that would allow the District to set its own fiscal year — its current Oct. 1-Sept. 30 year is cumbersome because it splits up the school year — and enact the locally funded portion of its budget without preapproval from Congress. Ms. Collins and Mr. Akaka co-introduced the bill.
With all these bills coming to the table, Mrs. Norton sees Congress feeling the need to get something done.
"When you get to the end of a Congress, people begin to get religion," she said. "If you're going to do anything, you better do it now."
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