Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center
Politics and VA
(Note: Special thanks to Denver Regional Counsel Mike Bornhouser for reviewing the legal aspects of this article.)
Early in 2000, a campaign worker for one of the presidential candidates called a VA public affairs officer in Iowa. The campaign worker told the PAO that his candidate would hold a political rally on the VA’s grounds.
When the PAO said this was impermissible, the caller got belligerent. “Do you know that this man will be the next president of the United States?” he said. “Do you know what he can do to you?”
The call was an extreme case, but not atypical. While this is not a presidential election year, senate, congressional and state posts will be on ballots nationwide.
Federal law restricts partisan political activity on federal property. Not everyone understands this. Consider two more examples from the year 2000:
- Vice President Al Gore came under fire when it was disclosed that he had made campaign fund-raising calls from the vice presidential office, instead of from campaign headquarters.
- Senator John McCain had to pull an ad showing him walking through Arlington National Cemetery.
Fortunately, for the most part, campaign workers understand once the law is explained to them. But not every situation is as cut and dried as the ones above.
What does the law specifically permit? What does it prohibit?
Several regulations and laws apply here.
- VA regulations prohibit unauthorized distribution of pamphlets or handbills, posting or display of placards, taking photographs for advertising purposes, and demonstrations, orations or partisan activities on VA premises. (38 C.F.R. §§ 1.218(a)(9), (10) and (14) cover VHA facilities and NCA cemeteries, 17.111 also covers VHA facilities).
- Federal regulations prohibit political solicitation, unauthorized posting and display, and unauthorized advertising photography in GSA space which VA uses for VBA and VACO facilities. (41 C.F.R. §§ 101-20.308, 101-20.309, 101-20.310.)
- Finally, a federal criminal statute prohibits solicitation or receipt of political contributions on Government premises. (18 U.S.C. § 607.)
Some examples of impermissible partisan activities include:
-- campaigning with patients/beneficiaries;
-- political speeches/campaign appearances;
-- photographing campaign commercials;
-- political rallies;
-- distribution of buttons, bumper stickers, etc.
On the other hand, these restrictions don’t mean that the slightest whiff of political activity is illegal.
For instance, permissible activity includes conducting an impromptu outdoor press conference on a VAMC campus location that does not block access or interfere with the VA mission.
In addition, federal officials, including members of Congress, have official responsibilities which include oversight of VA and assistance to their constituents. They are not only free to visit VA facilities; visiting is a reasonable part of their duties.
The Hatch Act
What about employees who want to wear campaign buttons or make a case for a candidate?
The Hatch Act prohibits government employees (except Presidential appointees subject to Senate confirmation) from partisan activity while on duty or while in any Government office - hence the problem with Vice President Gore’s fund-raising calls, mentioned earlier. The Act also prohibits all employees from using official authority to influence an election and from running for office in most elections.
Here are some Do’s and Don’ts for employees:
-- be candidates for public office in nonpartisan elections;
-- register and vote as they choose;
-- assist in voter registration drives;
-- express opinions about candidates and issues;
-- contribute money to political organizations;
-- attend political fundraising functions;
-- attend and be active at political rallies and meetings;
-- join and be active members of political parties and clubs;
-- sign nominating petitions;
-- campaign for or against referendum questions, constitutional amendments, or municipal ordinances;
-- campaign for or against candidates in partisan elections;
-- make campaign speeches for candidates in partisan elections;
-- distribute campaign literature in partisan elections; and
-- hold office in political parties or clubs.
Whether on-duty or off-duty, employees may not:
-- use their official authority or influence to interfere with or affect the result of an election;
-- solicit, accept or receive political contributions from anyone (with a very narrow exception in certain circumstances for solicitations of other federal employees for contributions to federal labor organizations and certain other employee organizations);
-- knowingly solicit or discourage political activity of anyone who has business before their agency;
-- run for public office in a partisan political election.
Except for certain officials at the highest levels of government, employees may not engage in political activity while:
-- on duty;
-- in a government office;
-- wearing insignia identifying their office or position; or
-- using a government vehicle.
The rules governing political activity are intended to keep VA and its mission away from identification with any political party.
While we always welcome public discussion of VA, its mission and its needs, we must not take sides in the interparty fighting. These rules are meant to maintain our impartiality.
Our service to Veterans is something common to all political parties, and it transcends partisan politics. No one asks what party we belong to when we take the oath of service to the Constitution.