WASHINGTON — Service members and Defense Department civilians swear an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. It doesn’t matter who is elected or what party that person represents. DOD personnel will follow the lawful orders of the commander in chief.
There is a long tradition of being apolitical in the American military. No one knew what party General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower belonged to while he served in the military. In 1948, President Harry Truman told Eisenhower he would step down if Ike decided to run as a Democrat. The general waved off the offer and, in 1952, ran and won as a Republican.
In a more recent example, Army Gen. Colin Powell waited until he was retired to declare himself a Republican and serve as the secretary of state.
According to DOD Directive 1344.10 and service regulations, active-duty personnel may not engage in partisan political activities, and all military personnel should avoid the inference that their political activities imply or appear to imply DOD sponsorship, approval or endorsement of a political candidate, campaign or cause.
Service members on active duty may not campaign for a partisan candidate, engage in partisan fundraising activities, serve as an officer of a partisan club or speak before a partisan gathering. Active-duty service members may however, express their personal opinions on political candidates and issues, make monetary contributions to a political campaign or organization, and attend political events as a spectator when not in uniform.
DOD civilians are restricted by law in the types of partisan activities they can engage in. It varies by grade, position and agency.
The governing law is the Hatch Act of 1939. The purpose of the Hatch Act is to ensure that federal programs are administered in a nonpartisan fashion, to protect federal employees from political coercion in the workplace, and to ensure that federal employees are advanced based on merit and not based on political affiliation, according to information on the U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s website. The Hatch Act has been amended several times since first passed in the Roosevelt Administration to cover changing circumstances — the rise of the Internet, for example.
The act defines political activity as, “an activity directed toward the success or failure of a political party, candidate for partisan political office or partisan political group.”
For civilians, there are two distinct groups. The more restrictive group includes those appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate and individuals serving in noncareer senior executive service positions; and career SES members, contract appeals board members, and all employees of the National Security Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.
The more lenient group applies to all other employees, including Schedule C political appointees.
Those in the first group are expressly prohibited from participating in political activity. They cannot engage in any political activity in concert with a political party, partisan political group or for a candidate for partisan political party. Prohibited activities include soliciting or receiving political contributions.
However, these employees can express their personal opinions, make monetary contributions to a campaign, and attend — but not participate in — campaign events or fundraising functions sponsored by candidates for partisan political office or political parties.
Employees in the second group have a bit more leeway. On their own time, they may volunteer with a political campaign or political organization. Permitted volunteer activities include: organizing political rallies and meetings, making phone calls on behalf of a candidate, serving as a delegate to a party convention, and working for a political party to get out the vote on Election Day.
Federal employees cannot solicit or receive political contributions.
No one can participate in any political activities on government time or by using government equipment.
Specifically, an employee may not send or forward political emails, post political messages to a Facebook account or engage in political tweeting on government time or government equipment, or while in a federal building [including when off duty], even if the employee is using a personal smartphone, tablet or computer. Employees should never use government equipment when engaging in political activities.
Social media is ubiquitous these days and the preferred method of communications for many Americans. Personnel may generally express their personal views on public issues or political candidates on social media just as they would be permitted to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper.
Just like a letter, employees and service members must clearly indicate they are not speaking in an official capacity. Any posting must clearly and prominently state that the views expressed are those of the individual only, and not of the DOD.
Active-duty military members and civilian employees in the more restricted group are prohibited from participating in partisan political activity. They can “follow,” “friend,” or “like” a political party or a candidate running for partisan office; they may not “share” or “retweet” comments or tweets from the Facebook page or Twitter account of a political party or candidate running for partisan office.
Political Activities and Members of the Armed Forces provides social media guidance for military members and Social Media and the Hatch Act offers advice to civilian employees on how to avoid violating the rules.
General guidance on the Hatch Act may be found at the U.S. Office of Special Counsel’s website.