Toward a Merit-Based Civil Service


The Pendleton Act of 1883 was not merely an important piece of reform legislation; it also established the foundations for the merit-based system that emerged in the decades that followed. It accomplished this through a number of important changes, although three elements stand out as especially significant. First, the law attempted to reduce the impact of politics on the civil service sector by making it illegal to fire or otherwise punish government workers for strictly political reasons. Second, the law raised the qualifications for employment in civil service positions by requiring applicants to pass exams designed to test their competence in a number of important skill and knowledge areas. Third, it allowed for the creation of the United States Civil Service Commission (CSC), which was charged with enforcing the elements of the law.United States Civil Service Commission. 1974. Biography of an Ideal: a history of the federal civil service. Washington, D.C.: Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Civil Service Commission. 40–44.

The CSC, as created by the Pendleton Act, was to be made up of three commissioners, only two of whom could be from the same political party. These commissioners were given the responsibility of developing and applying the competitive examinations for civil service positions, ensuring that the civil service appointments were apportioned among the several states based on population, and seeing to it that no person in the public service is obligated to contribute to any political cause. The CSC was also charged with ensuring that all civil servants wait for a probationary period before being appointed and that no appointee uses his or her official authority to affect political changes either through coercion or influence. Both Congress and the president oversaw the CSC by requiring the commission to supply an annual report on its activities first to the president and then to Congress.

In 1883, civil servants under the control of the commission amounted to about 10 percent of the entire government workforce. However, over the next few decades, this percentage increased dramatically. The effects on the government itself of both the law and the increase in the size of the civil service were huge. Presidents and representatives were no longer spending their days doling out or terminating appointments. Consequently, the many members of the civil service could no longer count on their political patrons for job security. Of course, job security was never guaranteed before the Pendleton Act because all positions were subject to the rise and fall of political parties. However, with civil service appointments no longer tied to partisan success, bureaucrats began to look to each other in order to create the job security the previous system had lacked. One of the most important ways they did this was by creating civil service organizations such as the National Association of All Civil Service Employees, formed in 1896. This organization worked to further civil service reform, especially in the area most important to civil service professionals: ensuring greater job security and maintaining the distance between themselves and the political parties that once controlled them.Ronald N. Johnson and Gary D. Libecap. 1994. The Federal Civil Service System and the Problem of Bureaucracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Over the next few decades, civil servants gravitated to labor unions in much the same way that employees in the private sector did. Through the power of their collective voices amplified by their union representatives, they were able to achieve political influence. The growth of federal labor unions accelerated after the Lloyd–La Follette Act of 1912, which removed many of the penalties civil servants faced when joining a union. As the size of the federal government and its bureaucracy grew following the Great Depression and the Roosevelt reforms, many became increasingly concerned that the Pendleton Act prohibitions on political activities by civil servants were no longer strong enough. As a result of these mounting concerns, Congress passed the Hatch Act of 1939—or the Political Activities Act. The main provision of this legislation prohibits bureaucrats from actively engaging in political campaigns and from using their federal authority via bureaucratic rank to influence the outcomes of nominations and elections.

Despite the efforts throughout the 1930s to build stronger walls of separation between the civil service bureaucrats and the political system that surrounds them, many citizens continued to grow skeptical of the growing bureaucracy. These concerns reached a high point in the late 1970s as the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal prompted the public to a fever pitch of skepticism about government itself. Congress and the president responded with the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which abolished the Civil Service Commission. In its place, the law created two new federal agencies: the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). The OPM has responsibility for recruiting, interviewing, and testing potential government employees in order to choose those who should be hired. The MSPB is responsible for investigating charges of agency wrongdoing and hearing appeals when corrective actions are ordered. Together these new federal agencies were intended to correct perceived and real problems with the merit system, protect employees from managerial abuse, and generally make the bureaucracy more efficient.Patricia W. Ingraham and Carolyn Ban. 1984. Legislating Bureaucratic Change : The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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