Congress Repeals Restriction on Fire Fighters Running for
December 20, 2012 -- With just days left in the
2012 session, Congress passed legislation expanding the political rights of fire
fighters and other state and municipal workers. S.2170, the Hatch Act
Modernization Act, was adopted in the Senate on November 30 and in the House on
December 19. President Obama signed the bill into law on December 28.
The legislation repeals the federal law that prohibits state and municipal
employees from running for partisan political office if they work in a capacity
“which is financed in whole or in part by loans or grants made by the United
States or a federal agency….”
With more and more fire departments receiving federal grants to purchase
equipment, provide training and hire personnel, this 70-year-old restriction on
the political rights of public employees was causing confusion and discouraging
fire fighters from running for office.
While this is an important step in expanding the ability of fire fighters to
participate in the political process, there are still other barriers in the way
of IAFF members who want to serve their communities as elected officials. The
Hatch Act Modernization Act applies only to state and municipal employees.
Federal fire fighters remain covered by other sections of the Hatch Act, and are
still barred from many types of political activity.
Also, the prohibition on municipal employees running for office remains in
effect for those employees whose salary is paid entirely by federal funds.
Therefore, any fire fighter whose salary comes solely from a Staffing for
Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant would not be eligible to run
until the grant expires.
Finally, S.2170 only amends the federal Hatch Act. Many states maintain laws,
known as “Mini-Hatch Acts,” that bar public employees from running for office or
even campaigning. These state laws remain in effect, although a court ruling
earlier this year involving New Mexico Professional Fire Fighters
President Emily Kane questioned the constitutionality of certain restrictions on
the political rights of public employees. In November, Kane was elected to the
New Mexico state House of Representatives after winning a court battle to remain
on the ballot.
Despite these exceptions, the legislation will have far-reaching implications
and lay the groundwork for future expansions of political rights.
Passage of S.2170 was particularly noteworthy because its sponsor is leaving
Congress after 36 years. Senator Dan Akaka (D-HI), a long-time champion of the
rights of public employees, shepherded the legislation through the House and
Senate in one of his final acts before retiring in January.