US Federal Personnel and the Merit System

Those entrusted with the administrative duties are divided into two groups, political appointees and those who belong to the executive civil service. The Secretaries, Under-Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries, bureau chiefs, division heads, members of the boards and commissions form only a minor fraction of all over 2 1/3 million men and women who carry on the civilian activities of the national government.

Such a staggering number of Federal government employees present a difficult problem, for the neatness of any government and the quality of its administration depend in large measure on the ability, loyalty and devotion of the men and women who constitute its state and carry on its activities. Selection and retention of capable employees, therefore, is a prime requirement of public administration.

The Spoils System:-

For a generation or more the selection and appointment of administrative officers and other employees were based on competency,fitness for office, a tradition set by President Washington. With the emergence of political parties more weight began to be given to political considerations when filling posts as they fell vacant or when new ones were created. John Adams, who succeeded Washingtonian, was a party man, but he maintained to a considerable extent the principles established by Washington.

The advent of Jefferson marked the first change in American public personnel practice. Though he agreed in principle with Washington’s concept of fitness for office and there were only limited removals during the first two years of his first administration, he found the Departments of government and other administrative agencies peopled with those who were his political and personal enemies. Being a shrewd politician he was also aware of the political significance of the power of appointment.

He was, accordingly, moved to remark, How are vacancies obtained? Those by the death are few, by resignation none. He found it necessary to remove some officials who had been appointed by his Federalist predecessors. Here is the start of the system known as spoils, the requirement of party loyalty rather than fitness for office became the prime criterion tor public employment.

The real fillip to the spoils system was given by a Congressional Act of 1810. It provided that terms of District Attorneys, Collectors, Surveyors of Customs, Navy Agents, Paymasters, and certain other office-holders should henceforth be limited to four years. It paved the way for rotation in office with the change in administration. For twenty-eight years Jefferson’s party remained in power but Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams did not follow the path of their great leader and made only a few removals.

When Andrew Jackson occupied the White House, the concept of a public office as spoils had attained complete dominance in the governments of the States and vigorous pressure was being exerted for the extension of the principle to the operations of the Federal Government. Jackson welcomed the change as he believed that political parties need something besides intellectual cement to hold them together.

Andrew Jackson explained and defended his appointment programme which may be reduced to four propositions. First, since the administration of government is a simple process any person of normal intelligence and industry is capable of performing administrative duties; second, democratic principles support the idea of rotation in office; third, office-holders who remain Over a great number of years are corrupted by a sense of power dangerous to the existence of democracy more is lost by the long continuance of men than is generally to be gained by their experience; and fourth, democracy is prompted by party appointment by newly elected officials.

The new President did not make a clean sweep of anti-Jacksonian office-holders, nevertheless he removed in the first year of office near about 700 employees in the Executive Departments and filled all the new vacancies with his own patty men.

The spoils system, therefore, is the practice, resorted to by political parties-as well as factions, of filling appointed offices with their supporters when they come into power. To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy, said Senator William L. Mercy in a debate in the Senate in 1832, and since then the phrase gained wide currency.

While Andrew Jackson did not inaugurate the spoils system, he religiously initiated it and all appointments for party reasons became part of the accepted order of things in the national, State and municipal administrations. It flourished unchecked between 1820 to the close of the Civil War.

To job spoil were added other type of spoils contracts, grafts, and the like. In the following yours of the Civil War public opinion began to question some of the extreme practices associated with the spoils and the assassination of President at the hand of a disappointed office seeker served to arouse public opinion, as perhaps never before, on the evils inherent in the spoils system. While the spoils system has not been wholly climinated even today, important reforms were proposed and adopted in the two decades after the Civil War.

Movement for Civil Service Reform:-

The price of the spoils system had been too high indeed. The spoils system and political patronage had always produced incompetent and in experienced public servants, and sometimes grafting and corrupt ones. By the sixties of the last century the standard of the Federal Service was at such a low ebb that civil service reform had become the aim of a popular political crusade.

The goal of the civil service reformers was to establish a merit system under which appointments to the public service would be based on ability, experience, knowledge and training rather than on party loyalty. In 1868; Democratic Party urged in its platform that corrupt men be expelled from office and the useless offices be To job spoils were added other types of abolished. In 1872, both major political parties advocated civil service reform.

The death of President Garfield in 1881 by a disappointed office-seeker aroused the nation’s demand for a change in the system by which Federal offices were filled. In 1883, Congress passed the Federal, Act, better known as the Pendleton Act.

The Pendleton Act set the basic pattern of national civil service and it is still the fundamental law governing recruitment. It created a Civil Service Commission consisting of three members, no more than two of the same party, appointed by the President and the Senate. The Act divided the administrative employees of the national government into two categories:

  1. Those in the unclassified; and
  2. Those in the classified service.

Power to determine under which service most administrative agencies of government were to operate were granted to the President. Admission to the classified service was made dependent upon merit as manifested through the process of competitive examination conducted by the Civil Service Commission.

Although appointments were still to be made by the President or the heads of the Departments, but the choice was limited to those who ranked at the top on the eligible list prepared by the Civil Service Commission on the results of the examination conducted by it. Also, all classified employees were required to abstain from active participation in politics, and they were to be protected in their jobs against political activity.

Al the outset, the reform did not extend far and the number of positions affected did not exceed 14,000. After the tum of the century, the number was greatly increased and in 1937 over 60 per cent of the total positions were subject to the Civil Service Commission.

By the Ramspeck Act, which came into force on January 1, 1942, many New Deal positions that had been outside the merit system were brought within its scope number estimated at well over 100,000. At the time the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission declared that more than eighty per cent of the regular employees of the national government belonged to the competitive class.

The Civil Service Reform League blunt! declared in 1937 that Congress was always the chief obstacle to progress. It had repeatedly failed, when enacting legislation calling for additional appointments, to name them as classified services. Such instances were glaring when party long out of power suddenly found itself in control of Congress, e.g., when the Democrats took over in 1886, 1913, and 1933, and Republicans in 1807 and 1921.

Roosevelt’s accession to Presidency in 1933, followed by his policy of New Deal, gave a rude shock to the merit system. The Democrats were back to power after 12 years, and the rank and file were hungry for offices. Creation of new agencies connected with the recovery plan multiplied the number of new jobs and in great majority of cases Congress exempted from competitive system the new entrants, thus, leaving the way open for spoils.

The President by his first executive order on record withdrew from the classified service positions in the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, which his predecessors had placed therein. As a result of wholesale exemption by statute and of spoil raids in a good many of the older establishments as well, the service as a whole so far slipped back and the proportion on a merit basis sank to hardly 60 per cent in the middle of 1936.

There was renewed agitation for reforms. In 1937, the President’s Committee on Administrative Management recommended an extension of the merit system not only upward and outward, but also downward so as to embrace skilled workers and labourers.

President Roosevelt, too, urged, on Congress that all excepts policy making positions be placed on a merit basis. In 1938, the President ordered into classified service all New Deal non-policy determining positions. The Ramspeck Act did the rest. It authorized the President to include in the service, at Presidential discretion, all positions except those subject to Presidential appointments and subject to the confirmation of the Senate, and a few other limited groups of technical nature. In 1951, the proportion of the service operated under the merit plan was approximately 92 percent.

When President Eisenhower assumed office in 1953, he found only 17,382 jobs open fur bis patronage. The remaining, approximation 2,500,000 persons employed by the Federal Government at that date, were protected by the spoil system. Of the 17,382 jobs not protected by civil service, practically all were either at very high Gr very low levels. Thus, the reform so modestly begun, today embraces a very large part of that federal civil personnel, over 85 per cent.

A Significant feature of the American Political System in the ease with which ministers and civil servants in American Government interchange their positions with similar position in corporate management. In fact, theme is a contact flow of senior managers from business to government and cf senior bureaucrats to industry and private banks.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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