Vultures and 19th Century Civil Service Reform

This is the first of a series of posts on the history and future of the civil service.

We talk a lot about the merit system and its importance to the integrity of the civil service, and also complain about its flaws. Before addressing some fixes, I thought it might be useful to share a bit of the history of the civil service and how we got where we are today.

President George Washington hired the first government workers based on merit. President Washington’s belief in good government as a basis for hiring  did not survive long past his Administration. The system quickly devolved into a spoils system with patronage rather than merit-based Federal employment.  Federal workers served at the pleasure of the administration and could easily be dismissed. The ability of a President to fill patronage jobs might have been a means of influencing policy, but it was terribly flawed. It caused wholesale turnover in government with every Administration, with rapid and unexpected firing. Henry Clay described Federal employees as being “like the inhabitants of Cairo when the plague breaks out; no one knows who is next to encounter the stroke of death.”  Job seekers actually advertised their interest in Federal employment, along with their willingness to pay for an appropriate position.  President James Garfield described them as “vultures lying in wait for a wounded bison.” One vulture was Charles Guiteau, the man who shot and killed President Garfield in 1881 after failing to secure an appointment in the Garfield Administration.

Reformers, including Senator George Pendleton (D-OH), used the Garfield assassination to press for civil service reform.  The merit-based civil service began in 1883 with the passage of the Pendleton Act.  Intended to rein in the political spoils system, it created or affirmed many requirements that we take for granted today:

  • Open, competitive examinations
  • Establishment of job classes and grades
  • Ban on appointments based on political activity or lack of it
  • Probationary periods
  • Ban on use of official position for political gain
  • Provision for exceptions to the competitive process
  • Veteran preference

The number of competitive civil service positions was only about 10% of the total civil service. The number grew rapidly with a succession of Presidents who turned over every four years or less (Arthur (R), Cleveland (D), B. Harrison (R), Cleveland (D), McKinley (R), then grew rapidly under President Theodore Roosevelt (R). Roosevelt’s history as a member of the Civil Service Commission and his opposition to the spoils system made him an effective reformer. As a Civil Service Commissioner, Roosevelt was a strong, loud and effective voice for reform.

Following his 6 years as a Commissioner, Roosevelt published a summary of his views on the progress of civil service reform. His words from 1895 still ring true today. Here are a few excerpts:

“The man who is in politics for the offices might just as well be in politics for the money he can get for his vote, so far as the general good is concerned…The worst enemies of the Republic are the demagogue and the corruptionist. The spoils-monger and spoils-seeker invariably breed the bribe-taker and bribes-giver, the embezzler of public funds and the corrupter of voters. Civil service reform is not merely a movement to better the public service. It achieves this end too, but its main purpose is to raise the tone of public life, and it is in this direction that its efforts have been incalculable good to the whole community…. Undoubtedly, after every success there comes a moment of reaction. The friends of the reform grow temporarily lukewarm, or, because it fails to secure everything they hoped, they neglect to lay proper stress upon all that it does secure. Yet, in spite of all disappointments and opposition, the growth of Civil Service Reform has been continually more rapid, and every year has taken us measurably nearer that ideal of pure and decent government which is dear to the heart of every honest American citizen.”

(Theodore Roosevelt, “Six Years of Civil Service Reform,” Scribner’s Magazine, XVIII, No. 2, August 1895)

Mr. Roosevelt was so influential in establishing the modern civil service that the building that houses the US Office of Personnel Management (the successor of the US Civil Service Commission) is named for him.

The next post in this series will address reform in the 20th century.