James A. Garfield's Presidency

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A fundamental assumption of administrative reformers in the late-1800s and early-1900s was that politics could have only an adverse affects on administration. How valid is this belief? Why? Do current administrative structures and practices reflect that assumption?

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Politics did have an adverse affect on administration. The patronage system allowed powerful candidates to use their ability to appoint people to office as an incentive to help with campaigns. This led to the turnover of many federal offices with every election and people having offices that they did not...

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Politics did have an adverse affect on administration. The patronage system allowed powerful candidates to use their ability to appoint people to office as an incentive to help with campaigns. This led to the turnover of many federal offices with every election and people having offices that they did not know how to administer. The Pendleton Act, signed after the assassination of James Garfield by a disgruntled office seeker, was supposed to remove patronage from appointment by making potential candidates take a civil service test. Candidates still had quite a bit of power in selecting their backers for government jobs, but at least now these candidates had to take a test. At the state and local level these reforms did not exist, thus allowing patronage to continue at a smaller scale.

A civil service exam not based on patronage would not allow for candidates friendly to a certain agenda to be hired. While this would root out corruption, it would also lead to a president or other government official not having people who believed the same way about issues. This might lead to a less efficient government. The PACE exam for civil servants was discontinued in 1981, thus making it easier to hire candidates using patronage. Most civil service jobs today have education requirements such as a college degree or relevant experience. This expanded criterion combined with closer media scrutiny makes it harder for jobs to be handed out based on patronage alone.

Patronage still plays a role in landing a government position, but it is now a smaller factor than it was during the Gilded Age when it was the main factor.

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The desire for administrative reform in the United States in the late 19th century reflected an increasing awareness that politicians at the federal level could staff the offices of government with their supporters, essentially operating government outside of a system of checks and balances. This was especially true at the federal level, where a newly-elected President might fill the Cabinet and other offices of government with members of his party and other political supporters. This "spoils system," or patronage, was not unique to the United States, but politicians and critics in the US had seen the manner in which the British Government had created administrative reform in their own country, requiring prospective candidates for public office to meet certain academic requirements and to take merit-based examinations.

The system of political patronage in the US had been noted in the early years of the American Republic, but it did not become a hotbed issue until the late 19th century. Ulysses S. Grant created a Civil Service Commission in 1871, which attempted to make political appointments in Washington based on merit, but the act which had created the commission was not renewed when it expired in 1874. The assassination of President James Garfield by a disgruntled office-seeker brought this issue to the attention of Americans of all backgrounds and would result in the Pendleton Act of 1883. This act was intended to create merit-based classes in the federal civil service and to protect civil servants from coercion or intimidation by politicians. Underlying this act was the understanding that civil servants who were under the patronage of another government official would not necessarily perform their office in the interest of the public, but rather might act in the interest of whichever politician they owed their job to.

The changes instituted by the Pendleton Act are still in force. Most federal employees are required to have taken a civil service examination and/or to have met certain educational standards. Therefore, current administrative practices at the federal level do reflect the assumption that it is better to leave politics out of government administration. But, beginning in the late 70s, there began to be questions about the performance of federal employees and whether or not there was still need for administrative reform. This continues to be an issue. Arguably, a drawback of a neutral civil service is that a sitting president does not necessarily have a free hand to implement his desired policies if he has to contend with a civil service that in some ways is independent of him or her. Like the federal government, many states, like New York, have laws that attempt to limit political influence in government, still reflecting the idea that it is desirable to have a government administration that is free from issues of patronage and political influence.

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If I understand the question correctly, the argument is that political interests have adverse effects on the proper administering of government programs. Progressive era reformers believed that because political party bosses were notorious for doling out patronage. This meant they gave the best jobs to their most loyal supporters (often measured by campaign donations) or family members, not the people best qualified to perform the job. As a result, government work was often done inefficiently. Patronage also led to widespread corruption, as administrators in turned hired workers based on family ties or patronage. At its most extreme, rank and file workers were hired based on how they voted or party affiliation, not according to any system of merit. 

The reformers advocated for an objective hiring system, such as an examination in which candidates would be ranked according to their qualifications and merits, not who they knew. This had existed since 1883 for federal government employees, after the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which led to the establishment of the PACE exam for federal government hiring. However, during the Progressive Era states and local governments did not have a similar law.  The reformers wanted such a law to be more widespread.

The PACE exam was abolished in 1981. Arguably government hiring across the board is more based on patronage than it was after reforms were first enacted.

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