Civil Service Acts (1883) (Major Acts of Congress)
William V. Luneburg
Since the formation of the United States under the Constitution, the government has taken various and sometimes controversial approaches to the hiring of federal and state administrative staff, or the civil service. In general, the basic choice has appeared to be between, on the one hand, an administrative staff that represents and reflects "the people" (the democratic vision) and, on the other, one that is made up of long-term professionals with the knowledge and experience necessary to carry out the complex and demanding tasks of government (the technocratic vision).
During the colonial years, it was not uncommon to fill public offices with those who paid for them. This experience, along with dislike of the British colonial bureaucracy, gave ample basis for the leaders of the new republic to distrust public employees. During his two terms as president, George Washington insisted on "fitness of character" as the prime qualification to hold a government job. This standard, it was hoped, would create a "patrician" civil service that would avoid what many saw as the pitfalls of democracy. Removals from office were rare.
With the rise of political parties after 1800, it was only a matter of time before newly elected chief executives would want people of their own political persuasions holding the important positions in the administrative hierarchy. It was not, however, until the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 that appointment to and removal from public office on partisan grounds was fully embraced as the appropriate approach to staffing the public service. After this time, public service positions would be handed out according to the "spoils system"n other words, the party victorious in an election could hand out civil service positions as a kind of plunder (spoils) to members of the party or anyone else it deemed fit to serve. This system would ensure that government was not the tool of the wealthy, powerful, and privileged but rather more democratic, with staff drawn from a more representative cross section of the electorate and therefore (presumably) more responsive to the popular will. Although the spoils system was criticized for filling offices with incompetents and creating vast incentives to corruption, those objections fell on deaf ears for over half a century.
THE CALL FOR CIVIL SERVICE REFORM
Following the Civil War, the movement for civil service reform intensified. The public was questioning the spoils system on moral grounds. In addition, many legislators had come to believe that the increasingly complicated industrial economy required a high level of knowledge and experience among civil service employees. Such qualifications were necessary for public policy to be adequately formulated and implemented.
It took the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by a crazed disappointed office-seeker to make reform a matter of the highest urgency. Ironically, the vice president who became the next president, Chester A. Arthur, had himself been a firm believer in and beneficiary of the spoils system. But, to the surprise of his former political allies, Arthur, believing that his reelection would depend on reaching out to more reformist and independent elements in the electorate, threw his support behind the enactment of civil service reform.
THE PENDLETON ACT AND RELATED ACTS
The popular feeling against political patronage was running so strong that both Democrats and Republicans joined forces to enact the first Civil Service
The Pendleton Act had closed the "front door" to civil service. But the "back door," or removal from office, remained unprotected from party politics. Indeed, it was common for members of the classified service to be removed for political reasons. In 1897, however, President William McKinley issued an executive order providing that removals of classified service personnel could only be made for "just cause." Moreover, classified employees were entitled to a written explanation for the removal and the right to make a reply. In 1912 Congress passed the Lloyd-LaFollette Act (P.L. 336, 37 Stat. 539), which prevented future presidents from interfering with these rights on their own initiative and, in addition, expanded to some degree the procedural protections against removal. The Civil Service Commission created a system for administrative review of removal decisions to ensure that proper procedures had been followed.
In 1944, anticipating that a wave of World War II veterans would seek and hold jobs in the federal government, Congress enacted the Veterans Preference Act (P.L. 359, 58 Stat. 387). For veterans only, this act expanded the procedural protections beyond removals from office to other significant adverse personnel actions (for example, thirty-day suspensions) and provided for review by the Civil Service Commission of the appropriateness of removals and other actions.
THE CIVIL SERVICE REFORM ACT
By the 1970s dissatisfaction with the operation of the civil service system had become so widespread that legislators knew they had to take action. Procedural protections for employees were viewed as inadequate. Many criticized the Civil Service Commission for failing to protect employees' rights, particularly when allegations of racial, sexual, and other types of discrimination were made in response to proposed personnel actions. As unions grew among the federal workforce, federal employees and others voiced concerns that no independent impartial agency existed to oversee the federal sector's labor management program. These critics also saw a need to strengthen the role of the system for resolving disputes that involved unionized employees and their employing agencies.
To deal with these and other concerns, in 1978 Congress enacted the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) (P.L. 95-454, 92 Stat. 1111), which radically restructured the civil service framework. The statute defined the principles for a merit system:
Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge, and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.
The act also prohibited certain practices such as the preferred hiring of family members (nepotism) and established rules for removing employees for inadequate performance. It also created a new tier of civil servants, the Senior Executive Service, allowing more flexibility in administration at the top of the government.
The act also created a new executive branch agency, the Office of Personnel Management, to establish the rules governing the civil service. Under the act, federal employees of certain types (veterans and members of the classified service) can resort to an independent administrative "court" (the Merit Systems Protection Board) to determine if actions taken against them are appropriate. The Office of Special Counsel investigates and prosecutes before the board cases where employees have been the victims of prohibited practices (such as nepotism). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has primary jurisdiction over the implementation and enforcement of antidiscrimination law in federal employment. Finally, another new agency, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, oversees collective bargaining and the process for dispute resolution involving federal employees who belong to a union.
See also: CIVIL SERVICE REFORM ACT; HATCH ACT; VETERANS PREFERENCE ACT OF 1944.
Ingraham, Patricia W., and Carolyn Ban., eds. Legislating Bureaucratic Change: The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.
Mosher, Frederick. Democracy and the Public Service. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Pfiffner, James P., and Douglas A. Brook, eds. The Future of Merit: Twenty Years After the Civil Service Reform Act. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
Van Riper, Paul. History of the United States Civil Service. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1958.