Time to update the Hatch Act to prohibit IRS agents from playing politics?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor

The Hatch Act of 1939 (officially called An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities) was last amended in 2012. It might be time to amend it again.

The purpose of the Hatch Act, of course, is to prohibit public employees from engaging in politics. But it turns out that when it comes to political participation, there are two categories of federal employees. Some (like rank and file IRS agents) are “less restricted,” while others are “further restricted.” (A list of things “further restricted” employees are prohibited from doing.)

This makes sense. You wouldn’t want a CIA agent to also be canvassing your neighborhood for a candidate, after all, so they are “further restricted.”

Further restricted employees include, employees of the Federal Election Commission, FBI, NSA, Secret Service — and yes — the Office of Criminal Investigation of the Internal Revenue Service (full list is here.)

But the IRS agents charged with targeting conservative groups are not on the “further restricted” list. And that’s a problem.

It means that on Monday night, an IRS agent can go door-to-door for Obama, or attend a union rally. And then on Tuesday morning, that same agent could be deciding on the tax status of a conservative organization.

(Note: I asked an expert about the “Criminal Investigation of the Internal Revenue Service,” which is included on the “further restricted” list. They weren’t involved in the targeting of conservative groups because conservative groups weren’t accused of criminal violations of the tax code. They basically go after mobsters etc. They don’t assess applications for nonprofit status, nor do they investigate IRS employees who may have violated laws. In short, this branch of the IRS pursues taxpayers who commit the most serious violations of the tax code — violations that rise to the level of criminal conduct. This scandal, on the contrary, is about IRS employees themselves engaging in unethical or potentially criminal conduct.)

In any event, in lieu of recent scandals and abuses, it might be time to add rank and file IRS agents to the “further restricted” list. This seems appropriate to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

If President Obama wants to send a message that he takes this seriously, this is one concrete change he should adopt.