Joseph Flynn

Joseph Flynn is national vice president for the American Federation of Government Employees. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / January 21, 2013)

Even as Congress and the White House appeared to be at a standoff over the fiscal cliff last month, lawmakers and the president were able to agree on at least one thing: an update of the Hatch Act.

The 1939 law prohibits federal employees and certain state and local workers from engaging in partisan political activity on the taxpayer's dime. Violators typically have faced two types of penalties — both severe.

Congress passed bipartisan legislation in December that broadened the range of penalties and loosened the rules so that most state and local government workers — including those in the District of Columbia — can run for partisan elective office.

The new provisions kick in Sunday.

The last time the Hatch Act had a significant update was in 1993, and critics said another overhaul was long overdue. The complicated law can easily trip up workers and land them in career-ending hot water, critics say.

"We want our members to obey the law, but many times it gets murky," said Joe Flynn, national vice president with the American Federation of Government Employees in Ellicott City.

"Employees, unless really versed in the do's and don'ts, can very easily step over the line and not even know it," Flynn said. "I have seen folks who, through no fault of their own, stepped over the line and were faced with a 30-day suspension or faced with termination."

Flynn recalled a case of a Baltimore local that published an article on the AFL-CIO's recommendations on candidates. The newsletter was distributed on government property, triggering a Hatch Act violation, he said.

Not only was the writer in trouble for potentially violating the law, Flynn said, but so was the newsletter's editor. An investigation found that the writer wasn't subject to the Hatch Act, and charges against the editor ultimately were dropped, he said.

Even Carolyn Lerner, the U.S. special counsel who enforces the law, has argued for more leniency.

The Hatch Act has prevented state and local government workers from running for partisan elected office if their job was tied to federal funding — no matter how insignificant.

In a 2011 op-ed article in The New York Times, Lerner argued that the law is being used as a "political weapon" to knock out well-qualified candidates.

A police officer in Pennsylvania was unable to enter a school board race, she said, because his bomb-sniffing dog was funded with federal dollars. And the chief financial officer for a New York port couldn't run in a party primary for the county legislature because his employer received federal stimulus money to rebuild a dock and wharf.

In fiscal year 2011, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel handled 39 cases of state and local employees seeking partisan elected office. Twenty-three candidates ended up withdrawing from the race; the others resigned from their jobs.

The Hatch Act Modernization Act of 2012 attracted Republican and Democratic co-sponsors, including Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat.

For federal employees, the big change is the new range of penalties.

Previously, workers violating the Hatch Act faced two possible penalties: a 30-day suspension without pay or termination.

"It's been the death penalty to your federal career," said Kathleen Clark, an ethics lawyer in Washington and a law professor with Washington University in St. Louis.

Under the new law, workers still may be fired or suspended, but the menu of potential penalties now includes a reprimand, reduction in grade, a fine of up to $1,000 and a ban from federal employment for up to five years.

Clark predicts that the new penalties will lead to more reports of Hatch Act violations. The old penalties were so draconian that many people were reluctant to report violators.