The House and Senate have each passed a measure - by wide bipartisan margins - that will free federal workers from the ambiguous restrictions of the Hatch Act, allowing them to take part in partisan political activities away from the work site.
The only obstacle seems to be the president, who has threatened to veto the bill when it comes to him for signature.My question is why?
A bill to reform the Hatch Act will not add to the national debt, nor will it cause taxpayer revolts, and it certainly will not upset the delicate balance of power around the world.
The bill will do one important thing - it will restore to federal government employees the same constitutional rights to help elect the political candidates of their choice as their neighbors in the private sector enjoy.
Now I believe 51 years is long enough to carry a grudge against President Franklin D. Roosevelt. That's why the Hatch Act was enacted by Congress in the first place. It was their way of muzzling his political appointees whom Congress charged were coercing patronage workers into supporting the Roosevelt administration's political ambitions.
Today, a supervisor or political appointee would be crazy to try to coerce government employees into supporting a particular candidate or congressional incumbent. There are too many laws on the books preventing such intimidation and the penalities too stiff for anyone in his or her right mind to try it. Some 90 percent of the government work force is protected by the civil service system.
Besides, I doubt if any of Roosevelt's old political appointees are still around.
That's why it is time to get over that and free all federal employees to pursue their first class citizenship rights to support and work for the political candidates who will best represent them.
When you think about it, how can the administration cheer the remarkable democratization of Eastern Europe, while at the same time hypocritically continuing to limit the political action rights of nearly 4 million of our own citizens who just happen to work for the federal government?
Opponents claim federal workers would "use" their official government titles to force members of the public into supporting a particular candidate. First, the just-passed legislation strictly and unequivocally prohibits such abuse of power. And, imagine today's watchdog, investigative media letting something like that go on for very long.
For those who believe lifting the restrictions will change the voting habits of federal workers - let's be realistic. Federal employees vote their conscience just as all other Americans do.
So urge the administration and other opponents to look at the facts.
FACT: The legislation reforms the Hatch Act, it does not repeal it.
FACT: No employee would be allowed to engage in political activities on-the-job. It would still be an offense to coerce a federal employee into supporting a particular candidate or political party.
FACT: Federal workers will be allowed to participate in a full range of political activities, but only on their own time and off the work site.
FACT: Penalties for violations of the Hatch Act are retained in the reform legislation. Violators are subject to dismissal from employment, fines and up to three years in jail. These sanctions, along with the protections provided in the civil service and criminal laws, are strong deterrents.
FACT: Forty-one states have passed laws relaxing restrictions on partisan political activities for state and local public employees. None has experienced difficulties in maintaining a politically neutral public service; none has had an increase in cases involving political intimidation or coercion.
Much has changed in the world over the past 51 years. In this age of expanding democracy, our dedicated and hard-working federal employees should be able to enter the 21st century enjoying the full constitutional rights granted all other Americans.
The American Federation of Government Employees and our congressional supporters will be working toward that objective. I hope the president will too.
(John Sturdivant is president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 700,000 federal workers.)