Competence, Loyalty, and Patronage

Every government needs a civil service to get things done.  Yet, hiring people into the civil service tempts politicians with some bad behaviors:  could the new hires be selected for their loyalty to me or my party, could the old hires be fired for disloyalty, or could I make some money by asking new hires for bribes in exchange for jobs?

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 ended the common practice of patronage in the civil service – rewarding political supporters with government jobs – by requiring that positions should be awarded only by merit (knowledge and skill) and a commitment to serve any incoming administration regardless of party affiliation. 

The Civil Service Commission originally performed the merit screening. Congress replaced the commission with the Office of Personnel Management in 1979.    The agency oversees federal human resources policy, oversight, and support, as well as healthcare, life insurance, and retirement benefits for federal government employees, retirees and their dependents.

This Pendleton Act was not completely effective: as of 2016, the incoming federal administration had the opportunity to appoint around 4,000 new employees outside the merit system and only about 1,200 of these also required Senate approval.

The situation could become worse if Congress does not block a new proposal from the Executive Office.  Under the pretext of fixing technical and administrative problems with the background checking process for new hires, the administration proposal would break up the independent Office of Personnel Management and move key functions to the White House controlled Office of Management and Budget.

Under the plan, submitted to Congress this month, responsibility for formulating and approving rules about hiring, firing and more would go to a political appointee whose position would not require Senate confirmation. If this idea is implemented, the Executive Office could put that political appointee under pressure to devise policies that would require screening all new and existing employees for their political loyalties rather than their expertise. 

Moreover, every time the presidency shifted from one party to another, the new administration would be tempted to – and would be empowered to – purge all the previous hires for fear of disloyalty.  That fear need never arise in a fully merit-based system.

It may be that there are other ways to improve the efficiency of the Office of Personnel Management without enabling a return to the old days of political loyalty and patronage.

Art credit: Unknown.

Want to learn more?

See the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883

See Political_appointments

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