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Reinventing Government, 1882

June 2024
5min read

They had the perfect remedy for the bloated bureaucracy: the civil service

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.

With their own choice, Ulysses S. Grant, in power in 1871, Republicans passed a measure that authorized the President to propose new regulations for strengthening the efficiency of the government’s various bureaus. He began bravely enough by naming a blueribbon advisory board—the first Civil Service Commission—to make recommendations for installing a merit system. But congressional defenders of the spoils tradition rendered the board cosmetic by refusing to appropriate any money for its operation. Grant wound up following the old pattern.

The outrage of reformers at his failures deepened their feeling that at root the problem was moral; the country was no longer in the hands of disinterested gentlemen who were above politics. Henry Adams, son and grandson of Massachusetts-born Presidents, complained that Grant did not appoint enough men like Attorney General Ebenezer Hoar, a representative of old New England, “holding his moral rules on the sole authority of his own conscience, indifferent to opposition whether in or out of his party.”

It was the “impractical” antipolitical gentility of the reformers, in fact, that infuriated their enemies most. In 1877 Rutherford B. Hayes, Grant’s successor, under reform pressure, replaced Alonzo Cornell, the collector of the Port of New York, for compelling his customhouse employees to do political legwork. Cornell’s boss and protector, Sen. Roscoe Conkling, delivered a celebrated outburst that declared that the reformers were “the man-milliners, … the dilettanti and carpet knights of politics,” who forgot that “parties are not built up by deportment, or by ladies magazines, or gush.” All the actors in the drama were Republican, but it was a Democratic senator from Ohio, George Pendleton, who, in December of 1880, dropped into the hopper the measure for a Civil Service Examination Board that would eventually carry the day.

The reform efforts then and now are so similar they even have basically the same internal contradictions.

By that time the defenders of the merit approach were making ever more generous claims for what it might do. Typical of their arguments was the speech of an Indiana state legislator sometime after the Pendleton Act finally became an accomplished fact. Asking for a similar state enactment, he said that the removal of patronage would make both parties “purer and cleaner.” The “demoralizing solicitations” that took up the time of politically appointed bureau chiefs would cease, and they would devote their “undivided energy” to their jobs. All in all, civil service was an idea whose time had arrived: “The thinking people of the nation demand it.”

But thinking people, who rarely constitute a majority, needed an extra boost in 1880 to have their way. It came in July of 1881, when President James A. Garfield was mortally wounded by a shot from the hand of a disappointed and mentally unbalanced office seeker. The “crime,” said one editorial, “acted on public opinion very like a spark on a powder-magazine.” It fell on a “mass of popular indignation all ready to explode.” Congress reconvened in December with an understood mandate for some kind of action on civil service. The machinery clanked and groaned for a year, but final passage in the Senate came in December, with no Republican and only five Democrats voting against it. It was gaveled quickly through the House, 155 to 47, and signed in January of 1883 by President Chester A. Arthur, ironically an ally of Cornell and Conkling.

That was, of course, only the beginning. Over many years and administrations the scope of civil service coverage was widened, and other issues and enactments also contributed to the ongoing growth of government in America. The only moral to be drawn, if any, is that the entire question is too complicated for simplistic argument or swift and neat resolution. Government seems indeed to be too damned big, but what neutral hand will pare it down with justice for all? What consensus will support a general reduction of government operations when so many of us are government’s beneficiaries in one way or another? I predict that the question will be a live one for as long as the balancing of public and private concerns, the essential dance of democracy, goes on.

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