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Learning objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain how the creation of the Civil Service Commission transformed the spoils system of the nineteenth century into a merit-based system of civil service
  • Understand how carefully regulated hiring and pay practices helps to maintain a merit-based civil service

While the federal bureaucracy grew by leaps and bounds during the twentieth century, it also underwent a very different evolution. Beginning with the Pendleton Act in the 1880s, the bureaucracy shifted away from the spoils system toward a merit system. The distinction between these two forms of bureaucracy is crucial. The evolution toward a civil service in the United States had important functional consequences. Today the United States has a civil service that carefully regulates hiring practices and pay to create an environment in which, it is hoped, the best people to fulfill each civil service responsibility are the same people hired to fill those positions.

The civil service commission

The Pendleton Act of 1883 was not merely an important piece of reform legislation; it also established the foundations for the merit-based system that emerged in the decades that followed. It accomplished this through a number of important changes, although three elements stand out as especially significant. First, the law attempted to reduce the impact of politics on the civil service sector by making it illegal to fire or otherwise punish government workers for strictly political reasons. Second, the law raised the qualifications for employment in civil service positions by requiring applicants to pass exams designed to test their competence in a number of important skill and knowledge areas. Third, it allowed for the creation of the United States Civil Service Commission (CSC), which was charged with enforcing the elements of the law.

United States Civil Service Commission. 1974. Biography of an Ideal: a history of the federal civil service . Washington, D.C.: Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Civil Service Commission. 40–44.

The CSC, as created by the Pendleton Act, was to be made up of three commissioners, only two of whom could be from the same political party. These commissioners were given the responsibility of developing and applying the competitive examinations for civil service positions, ensuring that the civil service appointments were apportioned among the several states based on population, and seeing to it that no person in the public service is obligated to contribute to any political cause. The CSC was also charged with ensuring that all civil servants wait for a probationary period before being appointed and that no appointee uses his or her official authority to affect political changes either through coercion or influence. Both Congress and the president oversaw the CSC by requiring the commission to supply an annual report on its activities first to the president and then to Congress.

In 1883, civil servants under the control of the commission amounted to about 10 percent of the entire government workforce. However, over the next few decades, this percentage increased dramatically. The effects on the government itself of both the law and the increase in the size of the civil service were huge. Presidents and representatives were no longer spending their days doling out or terminating appointments. Consequently, the many members of the civil service could no longer count on their political patrons for job security. Of course, job security was never guaranteed before the Pendleton Act because all positions were subject to the rise and fall of political parties. However, with civil service appointments no longer tied to partisan success, bureaucrats began to look to each other in order to create the job security the previous system had lacked. One of the most important ways they did this was by creating civil service organizations such as the National Association of All Civil Service Employees, formed in 1896. This organization worked to further civil service reform, especially in the area most important to civil service professionals: ensuring greater job security and maintaining the distance between themselves and the political parties that once controlled them.

Ronald N. Johnson and Gary D. Libecap. 1994. The Federal Civil Service System and the Problem of Bureaucracy . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Questions & Answers

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Source:  OpenStax, American government. OpenStax CNX. Dec 05, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11995/1.15
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