Last modified on May 28, 2022, at 15:13

Civil Service reform

Civil service reform in the U.S. was a major issue in the late 19th century at the national level, and in the early 20th century at the state level. "Civil Service" mean the bureaucrats in the government. Proponents denounced the traditional method of political winners handing out offices to their supporters as corrupt and inefficient. Reformers demanded nonpartisan scientific methods and credential be used to select civil servants. The five important civil service reforms were the two Tenure of Office Acts of 1820 and 1867, Pendleton Act of 1883, the Hatch Acts (1939 and 1940) and the CSRA of 1978.

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson, alarmed that Federalists dominated the civil service and the army, identified the party affiliation of office holders, and systematically appointed republicans. Andrew Jackson in 1829 began the systematic rotation of office holders after four years, replacing them with his partisans in a controversial move. By the 1830s the "spoils system" meant the systematic replacement of office holders every time the government changed party hands.

The Civil Service Reform Act is an 1883 federal law that established the Civil Service Commission. It eventually placed most federal employees on the merit system and marked the end of the so-called "spoils system." Drafted during the Chester A. Arthur administration, the Pendleton Act served as a response to President James Garfield's assassination by a disappointed office seeker. The Act was passed into law in January 1883; it was sponsored by Democratic Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio. It was drafted by Dorman Bridgeman Eaton, a leading reformer who became the first chairman of the United States Civil Service Commission. The most famous commissioner was Theodore Roosevelt (1889–95). The new law prohibited mandatory campaign contributions, or "assessments," which amounted to 50-75% of party financing in the Gilded Age. Second, the Pendleton Act required entrance exams for wannabe bureaucrats. At first it covered very few jobs but there was a ratchet provision whereby outgoing presidents could lock in their own appointees by converting their jobs to civil service. Political reformers, typified by the Mugwumps demanded an end to the spoils system. After a series of party reversals at the presidential level (1884, 1888, 1892, 1896), the result was that most federal jobs were under civil service. One result was more expertise and less politics. An unintended result was the shift of the parties to reliance on funding from business, since they could no longer depend on patronage hopefuls. Mark Hanna found a substitute revenue stream in 1896, by assessing corporations.

The 1883 law only applied to federal jobs: not to the state and local jobs that were the main basis for political machines. Ethical degeneration was halted by reform in civil service and municipal reform in the Progressive Era, which led to structural changes in administrative departments and changes in the way the government managed public affairs. The 1978 Ethics in Government Act codified standards of government ethics for the executive branch. In 1989, the act was expanded in its applicability to the legislative and judicial branches. Throughout the American ethics reform movement, one of the most important themes has been the prevention of conflicts of interest.

Moynihan (2004) examines the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) that became law in 1978. Civil service laws have consistently protected federal employees from political influence. Critics of the system complained that it was impossible for managers to improve performance and implement changes recommended by political leaders. The CSRA was an attempt to reconcile the need for improved performance with the need for protection of employees. However, it was based on unproven theory, with little or no social research to support it. There have been limited changes in civil service practices as a result of the CSRA, but advocates of greater management flexibility believe it was a step in the right direction.


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See also