Hatch Act

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either of two acts of Congress (1939, 1940), regulating expenditures, contributions, and procedures in political campaigns.
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Origin of Hatch Act

Named after Carl A. Hatch (1889–1963), U.S. lawyer and politician

Words nearby Hatch Act

Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023


What is the Hatch Act?

The Hatch Act is a U.S. federal law that limits the ability of government employees on official duty to participate in political activity, such as running for office, promoting a political candidate, or raising money for a political party or campaign.

The intent of the act is to keep “official government business” separate from “political activity,” which it defines as “activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group.” Specifically, it prohibits conducting political business while on official government duty, in government facilities, or while on or using government property. The goal of such rules is to limit the ability of the executive branch to affect elections by preventing its members from using government resources to directly finance or assist in a political campaign (which would of course give them an unfair advantage).

The law applies to federal government employees working under the executive branch, including members of the president’s cabinet, staff, and any other full-time and part-time employees. It also applies to some employees on the state and local level (as well as in Washington, D.C.) whose salaries are federally funded or whose jobs are connected with federal programs. However, the president and vice president themselves are specifically exempt from the rules of the Hatch Act, unless the activity involves the use of federal money to aid political campaigns.

The Hatch Act places even more restrictions on employees who work in law enforcement or intelligence agencies, such as the FBI or CIA. These employees are forbidden from engaging in nearly all political activities other than voting and donating to campaigns.

Why is the Hatch Act important?

The Hatch Act was introduced with the goal of preventing political corruption, specifically by prohibiting government resources from being used for politics. The act was passed in 1939 and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on August 2, 1939. It is named for New Mexico Senator Carl Hatch, who introduced it. The act was amended in 1940 to clarify that it also applied to federally funded state and local government employees, as well as those in Washington, D.C. In 1993, the act was amended again to loosen the restrictions on political activities done while off-duty.

How is the Hatch Act enforced?

Complaints about potential violations of the Hatch Act are reviewed by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency. Violations of the Hatch Act are treated as administrative matters rather than criminal offenses. The punishment usually involves a fine or the removal of the employee from their position. Historically, only a small percentage of Hatch Act violations result in punishment. However, there have been some notable examples of violations by high-ranking officials in recent years.

Did you know ... ?

The Hatch Act even covers social media use. The Office of the Special Counsel has made it clear that the Hatch Act also applies to social media activity by employees who are using their government profiles or personal profiles while on duty.

What are real-life examples of Hatch Act violations?

In 2020, the act came to public attention after numerous members of the administration of President Donald Trump were accused of violating it by assisting with the Republican National Convention, including holding activities on the White House grounds.

In 2019, the Office of Special Counsel found that Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway committed numerous Hatch Act violations by repeatedly endorsing President Trump and making critical comments about his potential opponents during official speeches.

In 2016, the Office of Special Counsel determined that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro violated the Hatch Act when he publicly endorsed candidate Hilary Clinton during an interview about his role as secretary.

In 2011, it was reported that members of the administration of President George W. Bush regularly violated the Hatch Act between 2001 and 2007 by assisting in the election campaigns of many Republican candidates.

The Office of the Special Counsel’s website spells out the fine print of the Hatch Act. Discussion of the Hatch Act in the media often involves whether certain activities constitute violations.


Quiz yourself!

True or False?

The Hatch Act prevents members of Congress from engaging in political activity while on duty.

How to use Hatch Act in a sentence