Can Karl Rove Plot Campaign Strategy on the Government’s Dime?

The Hatch Act and its limitations.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story here, or sign up for The Explainer’s free daily podcast on iTunes.

On Wednesday the White House announced that Karl Rove would give up his position as director of policy so that he can “focus on bigger strategic issues.” Rove will keep his titles of deputy chief of staff and senior adviser to the president, and he will shift his attention to politics in advance of the midterm elections. Can Karl Rove plot campaign strategy for the Republican Party while he’s working for the government?

Yes. Rove will be doing the same sorts of things he’s been doing since he arrived at the White House in 2000. (His stint as policy director began only after Bush’s re-election.) The Hatch Act, first passed in 1939, bars government employees other than the president and vice president from engaging in political activity at any point during their 40-hour workweek. They’re also not allowed to play politics whenever they happen to be wearing a government uniform, sitting in a government office, or riding in a government vehicle. But certain White House staff members and political appointees are exempt from the rules: According to Subpart E of the law (which was added in 1993), Senate-confirmed appointees and members of the president’s executive office are permitted to engage in political activity at any time.

The Hatch Act says that any federal employee can distribute leaflets, organize fund-raisers, or even “manage the political campaign of a candidate for public office including supervising paid and unpaid campaign workers.” He just has to make sure he’s not doing it on government time—he can work evenings if he wants, or take unpaid time off.

Those federal employees who are allowed to do political work on the clock don’t have to give up any salary. The government also covers their security details and office space, but they have to reimburse the Treasury for any extra bills they rack up with their political activity. You can organize an office fund-raiser, for example, but you’d have to pay the government back for the finger sandwiches.

The legal boundaries can get rather obscure. In general you’re not supposed to use government offices for fund-raising, but the residential portion of the White House has long been considered fair game. Lawmakers launched an investigation when the Clinton administration started inviting wealthy donors to Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers in the mid-1990s, and it turned out that the vice president had been making fund-raising calls from his office. But Clinton and Gore maintained that they hadn’t violated the letter of the law. (At one point they argued that the people Gore was soliciting were not themselves in the White House.)

In 2003, Alberto Gonzales (then White House counsel) sent out a memo warning White House staff which campaign activities to avoid on government time and property. He added, “You should also keep in mind, as always, that appearance and propriety issues can occasionally arise even with respect to perfectly lawful activity.”

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.