Civil Service Reform Act (1978) (Major Acts of Congress)
Robert G. Vaughn
The Civil Service Reform Act (P.L. 95-454, 92 Stat. 111), the first comprehensive civil service law since 1883, fulfilled the campaign promise of President Jimmy Carter to reform the federal civil service. Along with Reorganization Plan Number 2, it abolished the Civil Service Commission and created three new agencies to implement these reforms: the United States Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Of particular concern were the problems of employees with poor job performance and the protection of federal employees who "blew the whistle" on government misconduct and fraud.
The legislation, however, contains two themes that at times are inconsistent with one another. First, the act seeks greater accountability of federal employees for their performance. It does so by increasing the discretion and authority of federal managers. The provisions related to job performance reflected public and congressional concerns about the performance of federal agencies. Second, the act emphasizes protection of the rights of federal employees from abuses by federal managers. This aspect of the act was a response to the constitutional crisis of the Watergate scandals and President Richard Nixon's abuse of the civil service system.
To increase the accountability of federal employees, the act gives federal managers and politically appointed officials greater control over personnel policy. The highest-ranking civil servants become part of a Senior Executive Service over which agency officials assert greater authority in assignment and pay. The act authorizes merit pay and bonuses that give senior officials greater control over middle-level managers. Under the act, pay, job retention, and discipline depend on job performance. In addition, the act increases the ability of each government agency to create its own standards and procedures within the framework of the act.
The discretion and authority of federal managers, however, can threaten the legitimate rights of federal employees. Congress believed that these rights ensured the impartiality of the civil service and helped to guarantee the rule of law. Thus the act increases protections for federal employees. It prohibits a number of personnel practices that constitute abuses of the personnel system, such as favoritism. But the most important provision protects federal employee "whistleblowers" who disclose information that they reasonably believe provides evidence of "a violation of law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a specific and substantial danger to public health and safety."
The act provided a statutory basis for protections accorded to employees whom managers seek to discipline. It also created a quasijudicial agency, the United States Merit Systems Protection Board, to adjudicate appeals by disciplined employees. To help enforce the prohibitions against certain personnel practices, the act established an Office of Special Counsel with broad powers to investigate, adjudicate, and remedy violations of these provisions, including disciplinary actions against federal managers who commit such practices. Finally, the act supplies a statutory basis for labor relations in the federal sector and grants federal employee unions a number of rights to collective bargaining.
See also: CIVIL SERVICE ACTS; WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTION LAWS.
Ingraham, Particia W., and David H. Rosenbloom, eds. The Promise and Paradox of Civil Service Reform. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.
Vaughn, Robert G. Merit Systems Protection Board: Rights and Remedies, rev. ed. New York: Law Journal-Seminars Press, 2003.