Hatch Act (1939)

The Hatch Act was an effort to limit the institutional flow of money into politics by barring campaign donations by federal employees. It was passed in response to reports that Works Progress Administration workers had been pressured to contribute to candidates favored by President Franklin Roosevelt during the 1938 midterm elections.

Although the act resembled decades-old campaign finance reform initiatives, its passage was due to contemporary political realities. Despite Roosevelt’s tactics, Republicans gained eighty House seats and eight Senate seats in 1938, and their then-powerful alliance with conservative Democrats forced Roosevelt to reluctantly sign the legislation.

The law made it illegal for federal civil servants to run for office, make or solicit campaign donations, or ‘‘take any active part in political management or political campaigns.’’ In 1940, it was extended to state and local employees of programs funded by the federal government.

Federal employees challenged the law as a violation of their right to engage in political speech. However, noting the government’s longstanding authority to regulate the civil service, the Supreme Court upheld the law by a four-to-three vote in 1947, in United Public Workers v. Mitchell, and reaffirmed that holding in United States Civil Service Commission v. National Association of Letter Carriers (1974).

The Hatch Act was liberalized in 1993, allowing federal employees to make campaign contributions, run in nonpartisan elections, and campaign for or against other candidates while off duty. Federal employees still may not run in partisan elections or solicit contributions for other candidates from the public.

STEVEN B. LICHTMAN

References and Further Reading

  • Corrado, Anthony, and Thomas E. Mann, Daniel Ortiz, and Trevor Potter, eds. The New Campaign Finance Sourcebook. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2005.
  • Overacker, Louise. ‘‘Campaign Finance in the Presidential Election of 1940.’’ American Political Science Review 35 (August 1941): 701–27.
  • U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Political Activity (Hatch Act). April 2004. http://www.osc.gov/hatchact.htm.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Hatch Act, Act of August 2, 1939, 53 Stat. 1147 United Public Workers v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75 (1947)
  • United States Civil Service Commission v. National Association of Letter Carriers, 413 U.S. 548 (1973)

See also Campaign Finance Reform; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano

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