Hatch Schmatch!

Introduction: On Thursday, March 25th, 2021, newly appointed Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge spoke at a White House press briefing. During this talk, a reporter asked her about some political races in Ohio. After initially declining to answer to answer a question about filling her old seat in the House of Representatives, she responded to a follow-up question about an upcoming Senate race for Ohio by discussing the Democrat’s prospects for winning the seat. Subsequently, reporters began asking questions about whether or not she had violated the Hatch Act in providing these answers.

This tweet is one of many in which apparent supporters of the Biden administration expressed varied levels of frustration over the criticism in view of the previous administration’s record of frequent violations without consequences.

Key Facts: As indicated in this article by CNN, there is some question about whether or not answering questions about Democratic prospects in upcoming elections violates the act inasmuch as it borders on actively using the office and the press conference to advance partisan messages.

As also indicated in the CNN article, members of the Trump administration frequently violated the hatch act without significant consequences. I think it fair to characterize many of these violations as flagrant.

Text: The top tweet in the image to the left is the argument in question. I left the second tweet in as it is an example of the sorts of questions Haley Sheley was responding to. Anyway, the argument is as follows:

“I’m old enough to remember Trump having a campaign rally on the White House lawn calling, his then campaign opponent, Joe Biden a socialist. So, I don’t wanna hear how Marcia Fudge MAY have violated the Hatch Act by answering a reporters question about the Ohio Senate race. GFTOH”

(Emphasis in original)

ANALYSIS

Comments: In case it isn’t obvious, “GFTOH” means “Get the fuck out of here!”

Statements: The argument is as follows:

[1] I’m old enough to remember Trump having a campaign rally on the White House lawn calling, his then campaign opponent, Joe Biden a socialist.

So

[2] I don’t wanna hear how Marcia Fudge MAY have violated the Hatch Act by answering a reporters question about the Ohio Senate race. GFTOH”

Diagram: The diagram is simple enough.

2 -> 1.

Discussion: This argument raises the following questions; False Equivalence, Micro-reasoning, Moral Reasoning, Qualification, Tu Quoque.

False Equivalence: As the argument certainly involves some questions about comparisons here, it might be tempting to ask questions about whether or not this is an example of false equivalence, but if there is a disparity in the actions compared in this instance, it is probably one that points the other direction, so to speak. As the author of this argument points out, correctly, I think, the Trump administration is guilty of far greater violations than the one which Fudge is accused of making.

Micro-Reasoning: This is a brief argument dealing with a complicated issue. It might well be that problems with the reasoning here stem partly from the limitations of micro-blogging.

Moral Reasoning: As this argument is about misconduct, it does raise questions about the nature of moral principles, but these questions are complicated by the legal and political context of the principles at stake. It would be fair to suggest that the Hatch Act imposes moral responsibilities on government officials. On the other hand, these obligations are complicated by the viability of the political system. There are legitimate questions about whether or not one is still obligated to follow a law that has been virtually ignored for 4 years. Likewise, there are questions about whether or not such an obligation can be reasonably imposed on one political party alone.

Qualification: As noted above one of the points this author makes in her tweet is established by the all-caps to emphasize the term “MAY.” In effect, she is reminding us that it is by no means clear that Secretary Fudge actually did break this law by answering a question raised by a professional journalist in the context of a press conference. In effect, “may” qualifies the claim in question by reminding us that it is simply a possibility, not an established fact.

Tu Quoque: As an argument dismissing a criticism of one person by pointing out that her political opponents are guilty of the same misconduct, this seems like a classic case of a tu quoque fallacy, but there are a few things that might argue against this judgement.

First and foremost, this is not an argument directed against the Trump administration itself. It is directed at the news media for raising the question in the first place. The argument is thus less of a ‘you too’ than a ‘him too.’ So, the issue might not be so much a question of evening the score, so to speak, than one about what kind of standard has been applied here.

Many have questioned whether or not journalists are applying a double-standard here, but many journalists certainly did question Trump officials regarding violations of the Hatch Act. Any concerns about he lack of consequences for these violations probably lie with the political process rather than a clear bias on the part of the news media.

Secondly, this is not your run-of-the-mill he-did-it-too argument or situation. In this instance, the violations of the previous administration were frequent and flagrant. Under the Trump administration, the Hatch Act fell into virtual disuse as officials willfully defied the act without significant consequences. Questions about whether or not it is acceptable to uphold the principle of a law, as applied to one party, so soon after the other has all but nullified that law in practice are not exactly equivalent to the normal point of this fallacy. It is not simply a question of whether or not someone else did it too; the point here is that this application suggests a very serious double-standard.

The point of the Hatch Act is to curtail partisanship in government service, and there are real questions about whether or not the act still serves that purpose. If it applies only to the actions of Democratic officials, then arguably, the Hatch Act serves only to exacerbate the very partisanship is is meant to combat.

Third, any comparison between the actions of the Trump administration and those of Secretary Fudge would surely suggest her own actions are on a scale far short of her predecessors. Once again, the problem here is one of an extreme double-standard.

Even in light of these three considerations, I’m inclined to think this remains a tu quoque fallacy, however, partly because of the particular conclusion drawn in this instance. It is literally a refusal to consider the question. While, there are legitimate questions about what the Hatch Act means in the wake of four years of willful disregard, direct refusal to consider the issue entirely doesn’t raise those questions in a helpful manner. In the end, the reasoning is still problematic.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound because it commits the fallacy of tu quoque.

Truth of Premise 1: It is worth noting that the President himself is not covered by the Hatch Act, so his own statements about his political opponent during a campaign rally on the White House lawn would not violate the law. That said, the actions of staff in setting up the event certainly would.

Relevance of the inference: This really is a lot more complicated judgement call than usual, but I do think it fair to say this is a tu quoque fallacy.

Final Thoughts: At the end of the day, America is better off when public officials do in fact refrain from using their office to promote partisan politics. Secretary Fudge’s comments are probably not a serious violation of this principle, but they do touch upon ‘dangerous territory,’ to borrow language from the CNN article. If there a serious questions about whether or not this law has been violated before, or even whether or not this law can be applied to both parties when relevant, these questions are probably not properly addressed by ignoring questions about Fudge’s behavior in this instance. It is highly unlikely that serious publishment would be warranted in this case, but the question itself seems reasonable, and that question is exactly what this argument denies outright.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s