Friday, October 20, 2006

Local Legislative Race Problems Stem From Years of Federal Meddling

I live near, but not in Utah Senate district 18. I know who the two major candidates are and what their backgrounds are, but I don’t know either man. Since I don’t live in the district, I haven’t studied the issues involved in the race, but it’s not the issues that are making news. At this late date, one of the candidates may be disqualified, not due to anything he has done, but due to the amount of money his employer receives from the federal government. And it all began back in the 1930s.

During the depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided many jobs and greatly expanded infrastructure throughout the country. A number of WPA projects have directly impacted my life. Unlike sit-at-home welfare, the WPA only paid those that actually worked. But the downside of this was that the influence of the federal government increased dramatically, since it made up a much larger portion of the economy than ever before. By the end of the depression, the WPA “was the largest employer in the country--indeed, the largest employer in most states.”

Since the WPA was chiefly a Democratic program, Republicans griped about influence peddling and corruption within the WPA that benefited Democrats, even at state and local levels. While these concerns were initially downplayed by WPA proponents, it eventually became public knowledge that “WPA officials were in fact using their positions to win votes for the Democratic Party” (see here).

In light of these revelations, Senator Carl Hatch (D-NM) became concerned about the integrity of his own party. (Where can we find politicians like that today?) He proposed a bill that was intended to eliminate the ability of federal employees to influence partisan elections. The Hatch Act was passed in 1939. The act strictly prohibited federal employees from involvement in partisan political campaigns. In 1940 the law was amended to include “state and local employees whose salaries included any federal funds.”

This helped bring an end to one episode of government corruption. When it became necessary to refocus the nation’s resources toward military needs in the middle of WWII, Congress shut down the WPA. But the new Hatch Act prevented those employed by the military from repeating the WPA abuses. In 1993 the law was again amended to allow federal employees to participate in federal campaigns. State and local restrictions were retained.

Today the Hatch Act is affecting the state senate race in district 18. In the Republican primary, Ogden Police Chief Jon Greiner beat incumbent Senator Dave Thomas. Greiner is up against Democrat Stuart Reid. Reid has had a long career in city level government. Eight years ago he ran against Rocky Anderson for SLC Mayor. Until relatively recently he was Ogden’s director of economic development.

Greiner has been decried by some in his own party as a RINO (Republican in name only), so it is a question as to how far apart these two candidates are on the issues that really matter to voters. But, as I am unstudied on the issues, I am in no position to say one way or the other.

Greiner says that he sought legal advice on the Hatch Act issue before beginning his campaign. He thought that as the head of a city police department (which is hardly a federal position) he was in the clear. But then someone in the Democratic Party (Reid has kept himself strictly aloof from all of this) requested a formal investigation on the matter.

Greiner’s team subsequently sent thousands of pages of information to federal investigators about federal grants to the city’s police department. The Standard Examiner reported in this article that it has been leaked that the investigation has determined that the Hatch Act does apply to Greiner, although, Greiner says he has received no notification of such.

If the leaker is correct, Greiner can either quit the campaign, resign from the police department, or pay a fine of two years salary. I suppose there is also some mechanism for him to appeal the finding, but I couldn’t find any information about that. If Greiner quits the campaign, it is too late for Republicans to replace him on the ballot, making a Reid victory very likely. So this race may be decided on a technicality.

Part of Greiner’s problem stems from our homeland security reaction following 9/11. The President and Congress rushed to send funds to all kinds of state and local agencies (i.e. police and fire departments) for homeland defense. But they weren’t the first to send federal monies to city agencies. President Clinton did that with his program to put more cops on the street.

For six and a half decades, the Hatch Act has worked to prevent federally based corruption such as occurred in the WPA in the 1930s. But as we move away from federalism, state and municipal governments lose their autonomy. As they eagerly accept federal funds (and even pay lobbyists to secure these funds for them), they relinquish their ability to make decisions locally about what is best for their communities. It also appears that they unwittingly constrain their employees’ political activities. Are these tradeoffs worth it?

With the expansion of the federal government into our local public education system via NCLB, I wonder what this means for the tens of thousands of public education employees in our state. At times the number of Utah legislators employed by the school systems has made some quip that the legislature seems to be a wholly owned subsidiary of the UEA. Will it be determined that the Hatch Act applies to them as well?

The Hatch Act was only necessitated by the expansion of federal power into arenas where it arguably does not belong, according to the powers enumerated to the federal government in the Constitution. As the federal government continues to expand into every facet of life, increasing numbers of citizens will find their political freedoms curtailed by the Hatch Act. If you work for a state or local government agency, you could be next.

The real solution to this problem is not some new law, but simply a return to the federalism defined in the Constitution—pushing each government function to the most appropriate governmental level, or out of the government altogether. When the federal government has less influence in the lives of its individual citizens, there will be no motivation for the kinds of corruption that the Hatch Act seeks to address, and the kind of problems we currently have with influence peddling will diminish to almost nothing.

Do I think that this kind of return to federalism is likely? The pragmatist in me says no. But stranger things have happened when the need has been great. Nobody imagined when the Stamp Act was passed in 1765 that a new nation would be formed 11 years later, and that a scant few years after beating the world’s greatest superpower, this new nation would create a document that has become the defining instrument for ensuring enlightened democracy. Who knows what will happen in the next decade? Perhaps events will lead to a re-enshrining of the original spirit of the Constitution. Even if that’s doubtful, I’d like to think so.

Update 10/22/06: Greiner has been officially notified by the feds that his candidacy violates the Hatch Act, and that he has until 10/31/06 to quit his job or quit his campaign (see here).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is interesting to read since I just wrote about one of the original causes for our expanded federal government. I have not always questioned the size of the federal government, but this serves as further proof that it is time scale back.