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What is the Hatch Act?

<i>Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</i><br/>White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre violated the Hatch Act when she used the term “mega MAGA” from the briefing podium.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre violated the Hatch Act when she used the term “mega MAGA” from the briefing podium.

By Katie Lobosco and Devan Cole, CNN

Washington (CNN) — A federal agency said Tuesday that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre violated the Hatch Act when she used the term “mega MAGA” from the briefing podium.

But Jean-Pierre is far from the first person in a high-profile role to violate the law, which limits certain political activities of government workers.

The US Office of the Special Counsel, an independent agency tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, found that President Joe Biden’s former chief of staff Ron Klain violated the law last year, as well as his former press secretary, Jen Psaki, in 2021.

The agency also said in 2021 that 13 senior Trump administration officials violated the Hatch Act.

The OSC “concluded that the timing, frequency, and content of Ms. Jean‐Pierre’s references to ‘MAGA Republicans’ established that she made those references to generate opposition to Republican candidates,” according to a letter from the agency.

Jean-Pierre has received a warning letter but will not face disciplinary action from the OSC.

Here’s more about how the Hatch Act works:

What the law does

The Office of Special Counsel – not to be confused with the Justice Department special counsel investigation led by Jack Smith into Donald Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents – is a unique government body charged with enforcing a handful of rules, including the Hatch Act.

The law is supposed to stop the federal government from affecting elections or going about its activities in a partisan manner. According to the OSC’s explanation of the rule, it applies to federal employees as well as state and local employees who work with federally funded programs.

The rule is a workplace guideline, and violating it is not a crime. Responses can vary significantly after employees violate the rule, from a slap on the wrist to loss of a job.

The OSC has its own guidelines for those covered by the Hatch Act to avoid violations, and more recently it posted specific guidelines for social media. Some federal entities, like the Justice Department, have their own guidelines around political speech that go beyond the broad outlines of the Hatch Act.

Complaints are somewhat routine, and the debate over high-profile violations can be sharp, with interest groups and legal experts regularly weighing in and accusing government officials of violations.

Former FBI Director James Comey was at the center of a heated Hatch Act debate in the final days of the 2016 presidential campaign. His decision to update Congress on the status of the Hillary Clinton email investigation received widespread criticism, although Comey was not ultimately found in violation.

While the debate over Comey’s actions and cases like Jean-Pierre’s receive the lion’s share of attention, the act is a routine boundary for rank-and-file government employees, who must follow specific protocols to keep political beliefs from being perceived to affect the performance of the government.

In March 2018, the OSC, citing the Hatch Act, told employees to leave their “Make America Great Again” hats at home after Trump began officially running for reelection.

Who has violated the Hatch Act?

Klain was found to have violated the Hatch Act after sending a retweet from his official Twitter account, which included a message to buy political merchandise for a Democratic group. Psaki got in trouble when she appeared to endorse Democrat Terry McAuliffe.

The 13 senior Trump officials who ran afoul of the Hatch Act were: White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, White House adviser Stephen Miller, White House deputy press secretary Brian Morgenstern, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short, White House communications director Alyssa Farah, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.

In 2017, White House social media director Dan Scavino and then-US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley both received official warnings over tweets that the OSC said broke the rules.

Likewise, two Obama administration Cabinet heads faced Hatch Act reprimands. The OSC cited Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for political comments in 2012, and Sebelius said afterward that she regretted her comments but took issue with the degree of the OSC’s response.

Obama-era Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro tried to avoid violating the law during a 2016 interview by saying he was taking off his “HUD hat for a second and just speaking individually,” before boosting Clinton.

That didn’t work. In its statement announcing Castro had violated the Hatch Act, the OSC noted he was there in his official capacity and had the department seal behind him.

More recently, the OSC said in May that Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge violated the Hatch Act when she commented on Ohio politics from the White House podium earlier this year.

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