How great of an effect did the Pendleton Act of 1883 have In the United States?

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The Pendleton Act exercised both symbolic and practical significance at the time that it was enacted, and its contributions maintained their importance in the years succeeding its passage. Since the ratification of the US Constitution in June of 1788, American political theorists argued about the necessity of supporting a democratically-based government, maintaining a balance of power, and preventing the emergence of old, aristocratic institutions in congress that favored political-connection over sound leadership. However, starting from around the Reconstruction era, certain Republicans had argued for the distribution of federal political jobs to party loyalists, a practice based more on favoritism than merit or ability. This practice was known as the “spoils system,” and seriously undermined both the effectiveness of government and the legitimacy of elected officials.

Populist politicians and conservative presidents, particularly Grover Cleveland, fought against the spoils system in the effort to both eliminate the confusion and disorder that was beginning to characterize the Congress and to bring politics back to the people. The Pendleton Act, passed in 1883, sought to put an end to this kind of political nepotism by instituting the Civil Service Commission. The Civil Service Commission ensured that federal positions would be filled by qualified candidates by requiring them to pass an examination demonstrating their knowledge of politics and law. Furthermore, those people who passed the exam could no longer be removed from office on the grounds of political partisanship. This development protected candidates who were selected by the president by ensuring that they would maintain their positions in office regardless of what party held the majority in Congress. The Pendleton Act exerted a long-lasting influence by both putting an end to the power of political favoritism in appointing candidates to government positions and guaranteeing the stability of those positions once they were filled.

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In the short run, the Pendleton Act did not have a tremendous impact on the United States.  Over time, however, that impact has grown and it is fair to say that the law has transformed the way our government works.

When it was first enacted, the Pendleton Act did not have much effect because it applied to so few people.  The law only applied to about 10% of all federal employees.  It did not apply at all to employees of state and local governments.  This ensured that its impact would be limited.

Over the years, however, the law came to cover more and more employees of the federal government.  Today, it covers roughly 90% of federal employees.  As the federal government expanded, it started to apply the Pendleton Act to states and localities when it gave grant money to those lower levels of government.  The Pendleton Act helped to bring about the situation that we now have in which we can expect our government bureaucrats to be selected on merit and to be largely free from political bias.  This is a significant effect.

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