There's a law that bars federal employees from running for office?

The Hatch Act prohibits almost all federal employees in the executive branch from being political candidates. Here's how the law came to pass in 1939.

The United States of America is a land of political opportunity. Anyone can aspire to run for president, as long as they meet the Constitution’s two restrictions: They must be a native-born citizen and at least 35 years of age.

Right? Well, not quite. There is an entire class of US citizens who, even if they meet these criteria, are barred from running for the highest office in the land. Indeed, they can’t run for any partisan political office at all – even dogcatcher.

Who are these uniquely disadvantaged folks? Federal bureaucrats.

That’s right. Almost all civilian employees in the executive branch of the US government are covered by a 1939 law quaintly titled the Act to Prevent Pernicious Politics. This statute makes it illegal for bureaucrats to serve as political candidates, host political fundraisers, and even wear political buttons and T-shirts while on recognizable duty for Uncle Sam.

You might have heard this law referred to by its common name: the Hatch Act. Its main author was Sen. Carl Hatch of New Mexico, a reform-minded Democrat who was disturbed by the way a few federal New Deal jobs officials used their positions to influence votes and solicit campaign cash.

The law allows federal employees to vote, of course, and to donate their own money to candidates of their choice. They’re also allowed to run in nonpartisan elections, where candidates aren’t associated with any political party.

The line there can be more confusing than you might think, and every election cycle a few federal employees get involved in Hatch Act-related investigations. For example, a member of the Alexandria (Va.) City Council who is also a US patent examiner is now facing allegations of Hatch Act violations.

And for all you in the back waving your hands, yes, the president and vice president are executive branch employees. But the law exempted both when it was passed in 1939. Subsequent amendments exempt most top political appointees, including cabinet members and many White House senior staff. That’s why recent administrations have all legally maintained an Office of Political Affairs.

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