Tilting at Windmills

January/February 2012 Unreasonably Hatched

By Charles Peters

A Pennsylvania police officer has been told he can’t run for the local school board because his bomb-sniffing dog is funded by the Department of Homeland Security. If that doesn’t make much sense to you, you should support the campaign by Carolyn Lerner, the Office of Special Counsel head previously praised in this column, to amend the Hatch Act, which forbids federal employees from participating in politics. It now forces state and local officials who want to run for part-time jobs like the school board to give up their full-time job with state or local government simply because their agencies receive some federal money.

Actually, I support an even broader review of the Hatch Act, at least when we have a more capable Congress than we do now. It was originally passed by a Congress that was in a fit of pique at Franklin Roosevelt because conservatives suspected that he had used WPA employees to campaign against them. The reason I say the Congress has to be a capable one is that this is a complex matter; obviously there is a legitimate need to avoid undue political pressure on civil servants. But at the same time, they are the people who know the most about the agencies they work for and the programs they carry out—subjects about which the White House, Congress, and the general public have repeatedly seemed ignorant until some kind of scandal breaks out.

Charles Peters is the founding editor of the Washington Monthly and the author of a new book on Lyndon B. Johnson published by Times Books.

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