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The Reader's Companion to American History


The Hatch Act, August 2, 1939, was designed to "prevent pernicious political activities," primarily by regulating the relationship between federal agencies and political campaigns. It prohibited using for electoral purposes any public funds designated for relief or public works. It also forbade officials paid with federal funds from using promises of jobs, promotion, financial assistance, contracts, or any other benefit to coerce campaign contributions or political support.

In one sense, the Hatch Act grew out of a general tradition of electoral reform. But another significant influence, affecting both its timing and its content, was the widespread allegation that Works Progress Administration (wpa) funds had been misused by staff members and local Democratic politicians during the congressional elections of 1938. Although criticism of wpa workers centered on Kentucky, Tennessee, and Maryland, the political clout of federal dollars nationwide in the midst of the depression was undeniable; even without malfeasance, programs like the wpa attracted votes. Many Republicans, however, were convinced that wpa workers had gone further, intimidating staff members, pressuring clients, and using public funds for political purposes. This concern explains the Hatch Act's most restrictive provision—that persons below the policymaking level in the executive branch of the federal government must not only refrain from political practices that would be illegal for any citizen but must abstain from "any active part" in political campaigns. An amendment (July 19, 1940) extended coverage to state and local employees whose salaries included any federal funds. This amendment also set an annual ceiling of $3 million for political parties' campaign expenditures and $5,000 for individual campaign contributions.

The Hatch Act was appealed to the Supreme Court in 1947 and 1974 and was upheld both times. A proposed amendment to permit federal workers' participation in political campaigns passed the House but not the Senate in 1987; in 1990 a similar bill passed both houses but was vetoed by President George Bush.

See also Corruption.

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