Saturday, August 13, 2022

We Tried It Already And It Wasn't Good

      The Spoils System or Patronage: it's how the Federal bureaucracy operated until the late 1800s: a new Administration would replace Federal employees from top to bottom with their own picks, on the the notion that "to the victor belong the spoils."  At its worst, it institutionalized payments to ensure appointments and granted sinecures as a reward to unqualified partisan faithful.

      It didn't matter for a long time; after the outgoing Federalist Adams stacked the bureaucracy deck against the incoming Democratic-Republican Jefferson* in 1800, Jefferson got his own picks in as much as he could and his party held onto the Executive branch until Andrew Jackson came galloping up and took it in 1828 -- and replaced some twenty percent of the Federal bureaucracy.  He considered this a feature, not a bug.  His critics disagreed.†  Either way, it was how things ran, right throughout the Civil War and into Reconstruction.  The problem was, things didn't run all that well; picking Federal functionaries based on Party loyalty and personal acquaintance didn't guarantee competence.  Eventually, we got the Pendleton Act, which called for competitive examinations to qualify for Federal employment -- and required just cause and due process for firing or demotion.  This meant low-level Federal employees couldn't be fired simply for having been the previous President's pick (department heads still serve "at the pleasure of the President" and they should), while the exam process assured at least a minimum level of competence.  And there was a neat feature of the Pendleton Act: at the start, it only applied to a few Federal jobs, but a President could recategorize which jobs it applied to.  Which they did after appointing their own picks who therefore got protected employment, but the next time time the job turned over, it went to someone who'd had to pass a test to qualify for it.  Clever!

      In 1939, Congress added the Hatch Act, which prevents Civil Service employees from political activities on the job, or with Federal funds.

      The result of all this was a professional Civil Service, in which the worker-level jobs were held by people who knew how to do them, and the boss-level jobs were held by Presidential appointees who were in sync with what the current President wanted to accomplish.

      I write this because a few recent unpublished comments have reflected some Schedule F dogwhistles.  Schedule F?  That was an effort by the previous President to restore the spoils system.  We already tried Patronage.  It wasn't working in a modern nation-state by the late 19th Century, and it still won't.  I'd be all for stricter enforcement of the provisions of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 and the Hatch Act; let's clamp down on laxness and partisanship in the Civil Service and hold them to a higher standard.  But rolling the clock back?  Returning to the wild old Jacksonian days?  That's not how to fix things.  That would restock the swamp with alligators, not dry it out.  Don't be a sap for rhetoric -- read history, don't repeat it.
* As I am fond of pointing out, the political parties we have now are not the ones we started with, and it's been a long trip.  The United States is on its sixth or seventh party system and not even the names are the same, let alone the issues and alignments.
† You can count me among his critics.  If Andrew Jackson was in favor of something, I think you're better off being against it and investigating from there before making a final decision.  Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Andrew Jackson between them are responsible for more Executive Branch high-handedness than any Federalist who ever lived and remain a bad example their successors are only too eager to emulate. 

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