Reinventing Government, 1882

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The explicit premise behind this column, it should be clear to regular readers, is borrowed from Ecclesiastes (or Koheleth) and declares that “there is no new thing under the sun.” It is sometimes hard to justify; I am not sure what Ecclesiastes would have made of DNA or computers. But at times the message virtually ( cries aloud to whoever will listen. In the autumn of last year, President Clinton and Vice President Gore unveiled a mighty plan to shrink the bloated and wasteful federal bureaucracy and thereby in effect “reinvent government.”

At a well-staged press conference on the White House lawn Clinton and Gore promised to cut out at least a quarter of a million redundant jobs and infuse federal jobholders with a new, “consumer-oriented” spirit in which cost efficiency and customer satisfaction would become cherished values.

Well, I’m not one to quarrel with the intention, but shucks, folks, we’ve heard it all before, slightly more than a century ago, when the very civil (or uncivil) service now under siege was itself invented to take the place of a discredited patronage system that replaced all officeholders every time an administration changed. In its place, one of the reformers promised, there would arise a new administrative apparatus with members chosen by merit guaranteed through competitive examination of applicants drawn from the ranks of “educated, earnest, patriotic, and ingenuous youths.”

The messages behind the reform efforts, then and now, are similar even in point of harboring internal contradictions. Both would democratically reward taxpayers by giving them more service for less money; the early civil service advocates did not make economy a major point, but they did hope to win savings through cutting graft and incompetence. Both, however, also exhale an aura of elitism. The old reformers wanted to get “good men”—that is, from the prosperous and better-educated classes—into office. The thrust of the Gore reforms will be to run the government in a businesslike way, which can easily mean cutting out services that don’t have enough of a “market” to justify their costs—or whose recipients can’t afford to hire lobbyists in their defense.

The similarities become clearer by a look at our early pre-reform bureaucratic history. How we vote to “manage” government services reflects our changing and often inconsistent views on precisely what government should or should not do. President Washington continued the inherited British system of namine nolitical svmoathizers to office; to do otherwise, he argued, would undercut his policies and “be a sort of political suicide.” Jefferson’s appointments were few, but they were distributed among friends to his administration.

Andrew Jackson thought the duties of officeholders were (or should be) simple enough for any voter to master. Because experience was not an important qualification, personnel could be changed frequently to keep government in contact with plain folks. He called the principle “rotation in office,” and it is still very much alive in the term-limitation movement.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s most of the patronage jobs were in the Post Office, Treasury, and (after 1849) Interior departments. By 1865 about fifty-three thousand such workers, accounting for a yearly payroll of some thirty million, were regularly replaced after elections. Their appointments technically came from the White House, but they were actually named by senators and representatives whose choices the Presidents simply ratified, often finding competing claims among applicants a nuisance. One of the best Lincoln jokes deals with his response to catching a mild case of smallpox. At last, he said, he had something he could give to everybody.

Naturally the practice of spoilsmanship, though democratic in theory, came to stink of corruption. Officeholders paid for their appointments or were “assessed” for regular party contributions or both. Conscientious bureau chiefs had to put up with hacks, no-shows, and dolts assigned to them because they happened to have the right congressional sponsors. “At present there is no … system save that of chaos; no test of integrity save that of partisanship; no test of qualification save that of intrigue,” complained a magazine article in 1868. It could not have been all that bad. The government did, after all, function. Still, it was bad enough to launch a reform drive that kept accumulating momentum like an avalanche.

A first bill to fill some federal jobs by examination was tentatively introduced in the Senate and tabled without a fight in 1864. A second and more carefully debated (but never passed) measure was proposed in 1867 by Rhode Island’s Rep. Thomas A. Jenckes. But it was not until fifteen years later that the Pendleton Act, generally considered the starting point of the modern civil service system, was sent to the desk of President Chester A. Arthur and signed. The story of those years gives interesting insight into both the mentality and mechanics of reform legislation.

For example, though Jenckes’s motives may have been simonpure, he picked up early support from fellow Republicans who were, in 1867, locked in battle with President Andrew Johnson over Reconstruction policy. Johnson was threatening to build up a cadre of supporters by awarding them the patronage that would normally have gone to his congressional opponents. That was reason enough for his foes to smile on a merit system. When Johnson was subdued, however, a number of Jenckes’s backers simply lost interest.