Civil service reform in the United States

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U.S. civil service reform was a major issue in the late 19th century at the national level, and in the early 20th century at the state level. Proponents denounced the distribution of government offices—the "spoils"—by the winners of elections to their supporters as corrupt and inefficient. They demanded nonpartisan scientific methods and credential be used to select civil servants. The five important civil service reforms were the two Tenure of Office Acts of 1820 and 1867, Pendleton Act of 1883, the Hatch Acts (1939 and 1940) and the CSRA of 1978.[1]

Spoils system[edit]

In 1801 President Thomas Jefferson, alarmed that Federalists dominated the civil service and the army, identified the party affiliation of office holders and systematically appointed Democratic-Republicans. Andrew Jackson in 1829 began the systematic rotation of officeholders after four years, replacing them with his partisans in a controversial move. By the 1830s the "spoils system" meant the systematic replacement of officeholders every time the government changed party hands.[2]

Reform efforts[edit]

The first code of civil service reforms was designed to replace patronage appointees with nonpartisan employees qualified because of their skills.

Ulysses Grant[edit]

President Ulysses S Grant (1869–1877) spoke out in favor of civil service reform, and rejected demands in late 1872 by Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron and Pennsylvania Governor John Hartranft to suspend the rules and make patronage appointments.[3]

Grant's Civil Service Commission reforms had limited success, as his cabinet implemented a merit system that increased the number of qualified candidates and relied less on congressional patronage.[4] Interior Secretary Columbus Delano, however, exempted his department from competitive examinations, and Congress refused to enact permanent Civil Service reform. Zachariah Chandler, who succeeded Delano, made sweeping reforms in the entire Interior Department; Grant ordered Chandler to fire all corrupt clerks in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.[5] Grant appointed reformers Edwards Pierrepont and Marshall Jewell as Attorney General and Postmaster General, respectively, who supported Bristow's investigations.[6] In 1875, Pierrepont cleaned up corruption among the United States Attorneys and Marshals in the South.[7]

The Pendleton Act[edit]

The Civil Service Reform Act (called "the Pendleton Act") is an 1883 federal law that created the United States Civil Service Commission. It eventually placed most federal employees on the merit system and marked the end of the so-called "spoils system". Drafted during the Chester A. Arthur administration, the Pendleton Act served as a response to President James Garfield's assassination by a disappointed office seeker. The Act was passed into law in January 1883; it was sponsored by Democratic Senator George H. Pendleton of Ohio. It was drafted by Dorman Bridgman Eaton, a leading reformer who became the first chairman of the U.S. Civil Service Commission. Its most famous commissioner was Theodore Roosevelt (1889–95).

The new law prohibited mandatory campaign contributions, or "assessments", which amounted to 50–75% of party financing in the Gilded Age. Second, the Pendleton Act required entrance exams for aspiring bureaucrats. At first it covered very few jobs but there was a ratchet provision whereby outgoing presidents could lock in their own appointees by converting their jobs to civil service. Political reformers, typified by the Mugwumps demanded an end to the spoils system. After a series of party reversals at the presidential level (in 1884, 1888, 1892, 1896), the result was that most federal jobs were under civil service. One result was more expertise and less politics. An unintended result was the shift of the parties to reliance on funding from business, since they could no longer depend on patronage hopefuls. Mark Hanna found a substitute revenue stream in 1896, by assessing corporations.[8]


The Mugwumps were Republicans who refused to support Republican presidential candidate James G. Blaine in 1884.

Political patronage, also known as the "spoils system", was the issue that angered many reform-minded Republicans, leading them to reject Blaine's candidacy. In the spoils system, the winning candidate would dole out government positions to those who had supported his political party prior to the election. Although the Pendleton Act of 1883 made competency and merit the base qualifications for government positions, its effective implementation was slow. Political affiliation continued to be the basis for appointment to many positions.[9]

In the early 1880s, the issue of political patronage split the Republican Party down the middle for several consecutive sessions of Congress. The party was divided into two warring factions, each with creative names. The side that held the upper hand in numbers and popular support were the Half-Breeds, led by Senator James Blaine of Maine. The Half-Breeds supported civil service reform, and often blocked legislation and political appointments put forth by their main congressional opponents, the Stalwarts, led by Roscoe Conkling of New York.

Ironically, Blaine was from the reform wing of his own party, but the Mugwumps rejected his candidacy. This division among Republicans may have contributed to the victory in 1884 of Grover Cleveland, the first president elected from the Democratic party since the Civil War. In the period from 1876 to 1892, presidential elections were closely contested at the national level, but the states themselves were mostly dominated by a single party, with Democrats prevailing in the South and the Republicans in the Northeast. Although the defection of the Mugwumps may have helped Cleveland win in New York, one of the few closely contested states, historians attribute Cleveland's victory nationwide to the rising power of urban immigrant voters.[10]

Progressive era[edit]

The 1883 law only applied to federal jobs: not to the state and local jobs that were the main basis for political machines. Ethical degeneration was halted by reform in civil service and municipal reform in the Progressive Era, which led to structural changes in administrative departments and changes in the way the government managed public affairs.[11]

Recent civil service reform efforts[edit]

George W. Bush administration efforts[edit]

Barack Obama administration efforts[edit]

Throughout President Barack Obama's Administration, the United States Office of Personnel Management (OPM)'s "overarching focus has been to modernize the way OPM supports agencies, current and former federal employees, and their families so that the Federal Workforce better serves the American people."[12]

Donald Trump administration efforts[edit]

President Donald Trump took action on reforming the civil service by signing "a trio of executive orders that reform civil service rules by expediting termination for cause, revamping union contracts and limiting taxpayer-funded union work at agencies"[13] in May 2018.


  1. ^ Scott C. James, "Patronage Regimes and American Party Development from ‘The Age of Jackson’ to the Progressive Era", British Journal of Political Science 36#1 (2006): 39–60. online]
  2. ^ Erik McKinley Eriksson, "The Federal Civil Service Under President Jackson", Mississippi Valley Historical Review 13.4 (1927): 517–40.
  3. ^ Kennedy, Robert C. (2001). "No Surrender". Harpweek.
  4. ^ Jean Edward Smith, Grant (2001) pp. 589–90.
  5. ^ John Y. Simon, "Ulysses S. Grant". in Henry Graff, ed., The Presidents: A Reference History (7th ed. 2002). pp. 245–60 p. 250.
  6. ^ Smith, Grant (2001) pp. 584–85.
  7. ^ William B. Hesseltine, Ulysses S. Grant: Politician (1935) p. 374
  8. ^ Ari Hoogenboom, "The Pendleton Act and the Civil Service", American Historical Review 64.2 (1959): 301–18.
  9. ^ Hoogenboom (1961)
  10. ^ Mark Wahlgren Summers, Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion: The Making of a President, 1884 (2000)
  11. ^ Pamela S. Tolbert and Lynne G. Zucker. "Institutional sources of change in the formal structure of organizations: The diffusion of civil service reform, 1880–1935", Administrative Science Quarterly (1983): 22–39.
  12. ^ "U.S. Office of Personnel Management Cabinet Exit Memo | CHCOC". Retrieved 2018-11-14.
  13. ^, The Washington Times. "Trump revamps civil service rules, makes it easier to fire bad federal employees". The Washington Times. Retrieved 2018-11-13.



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