The District’s top attorney on Wednesday asked members of Congress to let the D.C. government rely on its own version of a federal law that polices public employees’ participation in partisan politics, arguing the city is plagued by confusing applications of law.
D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan, an appointee of Mayor Vincent C. Gray, warned a House subcommittee that the federal version of the Hatch Act passed in 1939 would bar qualified candidates from running for his position in 2014, when city voters will choose their attorney general for the first time in a partisan election.
“Under the current Hatch Act, which treats all D.C. employees as federal executive branch officials, neither I nor any District employee or officeholder could run for the elected attorney general position,” he testified in remarks as prepared for delivery. “And, of course, unless the law is changed, the person elected as attorney general in 2014 would have to resign the position in order to run for re-election.”
The Hatch Act prohibits both federal and D.C. employees from running for partisan political office, collecting political contributions or hosting campaign fundraisers and from using any government resources for political activities.
Both chambers of Congress are considering bills that would allow employees in state or local governments to run in partisan elections, even if their positions are federally funded. They also would stop treating D.C. employees like full-fledged federal workers and treat them like employees of any other local government.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, is championing the bills so the District can rely on a local 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 law, according to Mrs. Norton.
City officials point to advisory neighborhood commissioners as persons who are unjustly barred from partisan politics by the feds.
The commissioners, who are unpaid and elected in a nonpartisan fashion to represent D.C communities’ interests, are barred from seeking higher office in partisan elections unless they resign. But Mr. Nathan said the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) - which enforces the act - is “unsure whether or how it can enforce this provision should an ANC member violate the law.”
“By its action, or more accurately, its inaction, the OSC has made clear that it would prefer not to devote its limited resources to violations of this kind,” he told the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, U.S. Postal Service and labor policy. “This type of approach only breeds disrespect for the law, when it cannot be enforced with a straight face.”
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, also wants to fix the “ridiculous situation” facing future candidates for D.C. attorney general.
On Tuesday, he asked his colleagues to include language in the city’s fiscal 2013 Budget Request Act that urges Congress to amend the city’s Home Rule Charter so that the election of attorneys general is no longer partisan.
“We can’t have an election with a full array of candidates if we don’t do this, because so many people will be disqualified by the Hatch Act,” Mr. Mendelson said.
Mr. Mendelson could not get his colleagues to agree, however,
“It merits a full discussion and hearing, I think, before any change is made in this,” council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said from the dais.
In rebuttal, Mr. Mendelson’s office said the current dilemma was created when the council - at the last minute - decided to establish “partisan” contests for attorney general in debate on the legislation that made it an elected office.