In today’s apprehensive environment, there may be no topic of discussion more fraught than the Israel-Gaza war.
This can be particularly intimidating for federal employees unsure about workplace rules over expressing their opinions, despite a having wider latitude than many realize — including, perhaps, some elected officials.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) fed the intimidation last week with letters to federal offices demanding investigations into more than 500 employees he accused of insubordination because they called for a cease-fire in an open letter previously reported by the New York Times.
Meanwhile, Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine said they have heard from feds who are “afraid to share their personal views for fear of being targeted for reprisal” or don’t know what they are allowed to say. In Nov. 16 letters to the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), they pressed the Biden administration for “clear guidance … on federal employee self-expression” and assurances they won’t face retaliation “for expressing their personal views in line with that guidance.”
OSC issued a clear and definitive advisory opinion last week. The agency enforces the Hatch Act, which defines what activity political activity is allowed and prohibited for federal employees. Specifically, “speaking about the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas is not political activity,” OSC’s guidance says, unless that activity is tied to domestic electoral support or action. “And even if the speech is political activity, the Hatch Act only prohibits employees from engaging in that speech while on duty or in the federal workplace.”
Noting that President Biden has not called for a cease-fire, Rubio laid serious accusations against the employees. With no supporting evidence, he said “the letter indicates the possibility of open insubordination and misuse of taxpayer provided resources by federal employees attempting to use their roles within the federal government to actively work against policies supported by Congress, the President, and the American people.”
Writing to inspectors general and other officials in about two dozen agencies, Rubio said supporting a cease-fire “only stands to benefit Hamas.” He characterized the signers as “disgruntled staffers hiding in anonymity as they advocate for policies aimed at assisting Hamas.” The feds behind the open letter are anonymous, so Rubio can’t know their motivations, and he offered nothing to back his assertions that they are “disgruntled” or Hamas supporters.
Rubio’s comments drew pushback from a federal labor leader, Matt Biggs, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, who said with the senator’s “extreme response to the open letter, federal workers clearly have good cause to be concerned. This kind of rhetoric toward federal workers from a sitting United States senator certainly won’t help to alleviate their concerns.”
If favoring a cease-fire means people are disgruntled Hamas supporters, then that applies to almost two-thirds of the American public. A Nov. 29 Economist/YouGov poll indicates 65 percent of U.S. adult citizens favor a cease-fire, including 58 percent of Republicans. That strong cease-fire support is driven daily by gruesome pictures of devastation, death and destruction by Israel in Gaza, where at least 17,177 people have been killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. That’s more than 10 times the 1,200 killed during the shocking Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, sparking the latest round in a decades-long battle.
“Too many innocent Palestinians have been killed … Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians,” Vice President Harris said in Dubai last week, while condemning Hamas as “a brutal terrorist organization” and supporting Israel’s right of defense.
Rubio, again without evidence, also said it is “reasonable to suspect” that feds behind the letter “may also have used their positions and authorities to delay, or even block, implementation of the President’s policies to provide assistance to Israel.”
He called for the inspectors general to conduct a full investigation into the open letter and publicize the names of those who backed it. Rubio’s office did not respond to questions in two requests for comment.
In his letter to Karen Gorman, acting special counsel in the OSC, Rubio made other unsupported statements, including that employees might have “coordinated … with partisan political actors and/or groups, such as the DNC (Democratic National Committee), while on government time, using government resources.”
This is a “reasonable” suspicion, Rubio wrote, because of “the known connections between administration staff and the president’s political allies,” as if those connections are suspicious. There always are connections between staff and the president’s political appointees because they work together every day. Rubio said the feds “could have coordinated the letter with partisan political actors … while on government time, using government resources,” with nothing to support that statement.
He pushed the OSC to investigate the letter for potential Hatch Act violations, which does prohibit certain political activities by feds on government time and while using government resources. But it also allows employees political activity on their own time.
“As a federal employee under the Hatch Act, you’re permitted to express your views about issues,” Ana Galindo-Marrone, chief of the OSC’s Hatch Act Unit, said in an interview, adding “but while at work or on duty, that would be prohibited if the speech is tied to showing support for candidate support or opposition for candidates or political parties.”
The OSC guidance provides specific illustrations of what is and is not allowed for feds at work.
“For example,” the advisory opinion says, “it is not political activity for an employee to say, ‘I support/oppose a cease fire between Israel and Hamas and encourage everyone I know to write their Senators and Representatives to build support for that position.’ Similarly, it is not political activity for an employee to say, ‘I support/oppose the administration’s approach to the conflict between Israel and Hamas.’”
But federal employees would cross the line, the opinion notes, if they said, ”I support/oppose a cease fire between Israel and Hamas and encourage everyone I know to vote out any Senators or Representatives who disagree,’ or ‘I support/oppose the administration’s approach to the conflict between Israel and Hamas and therefore will vote for/against President Biden in 2024.’”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.