Expert: OSC crackdown on political slogans at work—and union pushback—all part of long history
- By Nathan Abse
- Aug 19, 2019
Nathan Abse interviews Saint Louis University political scientist Kenneth Warren about an Office of Special Counsel guidance—tapping Warren’s deep historical knowledge about the more than 100-year history of reformers who have tried to rein in political activity among federal civil servants on the job—while permitting them their rights as citizens to speak and act politically in their private lives. Mr. Warren is an expert in this area—and his latest book, Administrative Law in the Political System, will be released this year.
Q&A with Kenneth Warren
When in history did federal laws start censoring feds’ on-the-job political expressions? It’s all just the last century, right? In the first half of U.S. history, through the 1800s, federal jobs were won as political spoils, and the workplace was often political, true or false?
Warren: That’s about right. The Pendleton Act of 1883 was passed in order to start to de-politicize and professionalize the civil service. It came in direct response to the assassination of President Garfield, by the assassin Charles Guiteau. Let me explain: Guiteau worked for the Garfield campaign, and he was expecting and got a patronage federal job—but he felt it was a lousy, insulting federal position. “I worked hard for you, and you gave me just this lousy job?” He assassinated the president, motivated by this. Essentially, Congress said, “Enough’s enough,” feeling a sense they had to end this kind of patronage politics, and just stop the unprofessional character of patronage politics, since it helped lead to that assassination. That was the purpose: to take politics out of the professional administration, the carrying out of agency missions, from government.
That was a first step—but what happened next?
Warren: Well, President Theodore Roosevelt later issued executive orders to increase the number of federal employees who were covered by this professionalization law. It started out covering only about 10 percent of federal employees, then Theodore Roosevelt increased that percentage considerably. And it grew from there. By the 1930s, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, about 90 percent of federal employees were covered. So, most of the government’s officials were in the professionalized civil service.
Isn’t that about the time of the Hatch Act—which explicitly de-politicized the federal government’s civil service?
Warren: Yes, in 1939, the Hatch Act was passed—specifically to protect federal employees from political coercion, to prevent them from having to work in political campaigns. Previous to this law’s passage, many federal—and by the way state—government employees were forced to do this, to work in political campaigns. Federal employees felt intimidated. They felt—often rightly so—intimidated. “Hey, unless I work for this current president’s next political campaign—you know, like unless I campaign for these guys and put up signs pushing people to vote for, say, President Harding, or President Coolidge, or President Hoover—well unless I do that, I have to worry about losing my job,” federal employees had to think back then. That is just the way it was back then. Now, there were some laws that protected them—some—but in practice there were always ways these sitting politicians and [their loyal functionaries] could get back at you as a federal employee if you failed to help them in their politics, by punishments such as demotions and denial of pay raises and so on.
For the full interview, view the Aug. 19, 2019 issue of FEND.