People both inside and outside the federal government like to believe that it’s “impossible” to fire a federal employee. The truth is, it’s only hard for a supervisor who doesn’t counsel their employees and keep a paper trail of infractions and attempted remediation. But aside from that, there are two ways to lose your job in the federal government quickly. One is to mess around with classified information. The other is to violate the Hatch Act.
The latest person who is about to learn this lesson is Stuart Karaffa, a Management and Program Analyst with the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. Karaffa is also active in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). That alone is not a problem. But conservative undercover journalist James O’Keefe caught Karaffa on hidden camera admitting that he does much of his DSA work while on the job at State. That’s a problem.
To understand how and why, it’s important to take a walk through the history of the federal workforce.
From Spoils System to Civil Service
Government service wasn’t always as regulated as it is today. In our early days, patronage ruled. Following his election in 1828, President Andrew Jackson cleared the federal bureaucracy of its incumbent employees and replaced them with his own supporters. (Is it any wonder that President Donald Trump, who ran on a “drain the swamp” campaign against the bureaucracy is a fan of Jackson?).
Senator William L. Marcy of New York defended Jackson with his now-famous line, “to the victor belong the spoils.” The “Spoils System” would continue for much of the rest of the 19th Century. But gradually, the idea that competence was a bigger asset for government employees than loyalty began to take root. The death knell for the patronage system sounded with the death of a president.
President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881 by a man who thought he was owed a patronage position in the government. There had already been civil service reform efforts around the country, notably in New York State, where reformers were taking on the political patronage machine exemplified by Tammany Hall’s “Boss Tweed.”
Garfield’s assassination tipped the scales, and in January 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act, creating a civil service based on merit. As it so happens, one of the early members of the Civil Service Commission was a young, eager reformer from New York named Theodore Roosevelt. Since then, the vast majority of the executive branch is staffed by these civil servants who are (theoretically at least) hired solely on merit and whose tenure usually spans multiple presidential administrations. Only a few thousand top-level policymaking positions are available for an incoming president to fill with his own team.
These bureaucrats, who know how the government works and are the ones who actually implement policy, are what detractors call the “deep state.” As I’ve written previously, the “deep state” isn’t so much a conspiracy to thwart Trump as it is bureaucratic inertia. But guys like Karaffa don’t help very much.
Campaigning on the Government’s Dime
Even with the changes to the civil service system, government was not totally free of partisan rancor.
In the election of 1938, Republicans claimed that the Democratic Party was using employees of the Works Progress Administration, established by Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, as campaign workers. The following year, Congress enacted the Hatch Act, named for its sponsor, New Mexico Senator Carl Hatch.
At its core, the Hatch Act prevents federal employees from engaging in partisan political activity during work hours, from using their position to influence how their subordinates vote, to raise funds for partisan political candidates, and to run for partisan political office themselves.
Of particular importance to many readers of Daily Intel, many government employees are “Further Restricted Employees.” If you work in the intelligence community, the restrictions are tighter. While most Federal employees are allowed to serve as officers in political parties or clubs, Further Restricted Employees are not. They may not take part in partisan political campaigns, including activities as mundane as handing out flyers.
Karaffa does not appear to be a Further Restricted Employee, but he has run afoul of the Hatch Act’s restrictions on campaigning while at work.
The government is serious about enforcement of the hatch act
The Office of Special Counsel (or OSC. This is an independent federal agency, not Robert Mueller’s office.) is responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act. Its website is clear: government employees may not “engage in political activity – i.e., activity directed at the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office, or partisan political group – while the employee is on duty, in any federal room or building, while wearing a uniform or official insignia, or using any federally owned or leased vehicle.”
Karaffa told O’Keefe’s undercover journalists that “As soon as 5:31 hits, got my like draft messages ready to send out.” Sorry, Stuart. It’s not just the clock, it’s the fact that you’re still inside the building.
Karaffa should expect a call soon from investigators at the OSC. Because while it may be difficult for a supervisor to fire a federal worker, the OSC, working through the Merit Systems Promotion Board, can and will remove someone who has violated the Hatch Act from federal service. They did it twice in August alone.
A Merit Systems Protection Board Administrative Law Judge ordered the removal of a Philadelphia postal worker “who ran for two partisan political offices.” And an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency employee who “admitted to posting more than 100 social media messages…in support of then‐presidential candidate Hillary Clinton while on duty or in the workplace,” and “telling coworkers to vote for Hillary Clinton and inviting them to attend a campaign rally” while at work, “agreed to resign and not return to federal service for five years.”
Still think it’s impossible to fire federal workers?