Lloyd-La Follette Act

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Lloyd-La Follette Act

United States 1912


The Lloyd-La Follette Act was a civil service reform act passed by Congress under the sponsorship of Robert La Follette, a Progressive senator from Wisconsin. The act established procedures for the discharge of federal employees and guaranteed the right of federal employees to communicate with members of Congress, in effect making it the first protective legislation for "whistleblowers." The act also protected the right of federal employees to join unions.


  • 1891: French troops open fire on workers during a 1 May demonstration at Fourmies, where employees of the Sans Pareille factory are striking for an eight-hour workday. Nine people are killed—two of them children—and 60 more are injured.
  • 1897: In the midst of a nationwide depression, Mrs. Bradley Martin, daughter of Carnegie Steel magnate Henry Phipps, throws a lavish party at New York's recently opened Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where she has a suite decorated to look like Versailles. Her 900 guests, dressed in Louis XV period costumes, consume sixty cases of champagne.
  • 1902: Second Anglo-Boer War ends in victory for Great Britain. It is a costly victory, however, resulting in the loss of more British lives (5,774) than any conflict between 1815 and 1914. The war also sees the introduction of concentration camps, used by the British to incarcerate Boer civilians.
  • 1905: Russian Revolution of 1905 occurs. Following the "bloody Sunday" riots before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in January, revolution spreads throughout Russia, in some places spurred on by newly formed workers' councils, or soviets. Among the most memorable incidents of the revolt is the mutiny aboard the battleshipPotemkin. Suppressed by the czar, the revolution brings an end to liberal reforms, and thus sets the stage for the larger revolution of 1917.
  • 1908: An earthquake in southern Italy and Sicily kills some 150,000 people.
  • 1910: Revolution breaks out in Mexico, and will continue for the next seven years.
  • 1912: First Balkan War, which results in the defeat of Turkey by the allied forces of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro, begins. A peace treaty the following year partitions the majority of remaining Turkish holdings in Europe between the victors.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1912: New Mexico and Arizona are admitted to the Union as the forty-seventh and forty-eighth states, respectively—the last of the contiguous U.S. territories to achieve statehood.
  • 1914: On 28 June in the town of Sarajevo, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinates Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and wife Sophie. In the weeks that follow, Austria declares war on Serbia, and Germany on Russia and France, while Great Britain responds by declaring war on Germany. By the beginning of August, the lines are drawn, with the Allies (Great Britain, France, Russia, Belgium, Serbia, Montenegro, and Japan) against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Turkey).
  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war.
  • 1922: Inspired by the Bolsheviks' example of imposing revolution by means of a coup, Benito Mussolini leads his blackshirts in an October "March on Rome," and forms a new fascist government.

Event and Its Context

Civil Service Reform Before 1912

For its first century, the U.S. civil service operated under a "spoils system." Civil service jobs were a form of patronage extended by elected officials to their friends and political supporters. Incumbents in those jobs were usually expected to contribute both time and money to their patrons' political campaigns. While a political party was out of power, it geared up for the next election by recruiting supporters with promises of federal employment. Such a system led to massive inefficiency as civil service workers were usually swept out of office en masse when the opposing political party took power. This problem became particularly acute in the 1840s and 1850s as the rival Whigs and Democrats won every other election. Defenders of the system, including Andrew Jackson, argued that it ensured that civil service employees would diligently execute the policies of the administration that employed them.

Attempts to introduce civil service reform legislation began as early as 1865, but they lacked support both from legislators, who feared that it would disrupt party organization, and at the grass-roots level. During the Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes administrations, however, support for reform began to grow. Hayes worked toward depoliticizing at least two agencies, the New York Customhouse and the New York Post Office. Matters came to a head on 2 July 1881, when President James A. Garfield was shot. The assassin was Charles J. Guiteau, a disturbed religious fanatic who was widely believed to be a disgruntled office seeker who blamed the president for his failure to gain an appointment as U.S. consul in Paris. Proponents of civil service reform took advantage of this belief to convince the public that the civil service system was responsible for the assassination.

During the summer of 1881, as Garfield lingered near death, delegates from 13 civil service reform organizations met to form the National Civil Service Reform League. This organization led the fight for reform, and out of its efforts came the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883, sponsored by Democratic senator George H. Pendleton from Ohio. In creating a merit system and a competitive examination administered by a bipartisan Civil Service Commission, the act was a major step forward, but it was limited in its application. It dealt almost exclusively with entry into the civil service and barely touched on issues of tenure, promotion, and removal. Its only provision having to do with removal was to prohibit removal for refusal to contribute to a political fund or to render political service.

"Battling Bob" La Follette

During the 1890s Robert La Follette was a rising star in the Progressive firmament. A lawyer by trade, La Follette loved oratory and theater, and he put those talents to work throughout his political career. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from 1885 to 1891, and when he returned to his home in Wisconsin, he spent much of the decade on statewide public-speaking campaigns as the acknowledged leader of the growing agrarian revolt. His constant theme was that the "interests"—that is, corporations—were conspiring with the "bosses"—that is, the major political parties and their leaders—to exploit "the people," including small business owners, farmers, and workers. His growing popularity led in 1900 to the state governor's mansion on a platform that included a pledge to manage public resources in the public interest. One component of this pledge was that his administration was to be in the hands of nonpartisan civil servants.

The "Wisconsin Idea" brought La Follette nationwide attention, particularly among Progressives. With their sponsorship, "Battling Bob" was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1905, where he served for 20 years until his death. As a senator he did not put his name to many bills. Perhaps the most significant piece of legislation he sponsored was the La Follette Seamen's Act, which protected merchant seamen from exploitation and conditions amounting almost to involuntary servitude. To many people, however, he was the conscience of the Senate as he pushed uncompromisingly for legislation that he believed was in the interests of the people.

One bill to which La Follette did put his name was the Lloyd-La Follette Act, cosponsored by Representative James Lloyd, a Democrat from Missouri and House minority whip. The act, which became law on 24 August 1912, was part of the Post Office Department's appropriation bill for fiscal year 1913, but it later became part of the U.S. legal code. Authority to enforce the act was vested in the Civil Service Commission and the Office of Economic Opportunity until passage of the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, which dissolved the Civil Service Commission and transferred its responsibilities to other federal agencies. Still today, the act, in combination with the administrative rules of the agencies that enforce it, provides the regulatory framework that controls the discharge of federal civil service employees.

The chief purpose of the Lloyd-La Follette Act was to protect federal civil servants from arbitrary discharge. Accordingly, it expanded on McKinley's Rule II by stating that persons employed in "classified civil service" could be removed "except for such cause as will promote the efficiency of said service and for reasons given in writing, and the person whose removal is sought shall have notice of the same and of any charges preferred against him."

The act, however, had at least two other purposes. First, it stated that "the right of employees … to petition Congress or a Member of Congress, or to furnish information to either House of Congress, or to a committee or Member thereof, may not be interfered with or denied." This provision was a response to gag orders issued by presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft prohibiting federal employees from petitioning Congress without authorization from their superiors. Thus, federal employees could now press wage and other demands directly to Congress.

Second, the act protected the right of civil servants to join employee organizations, including unions. In 1906 President Roosevelt had issued an order under which federal employees were "forbidden … individually or through associations, to solicit an increase of pay or to influence or attempt to influence in their own interest any other legislation whatever." Under the Lloyd-La Follette Act, federal employees gained the right to organize and bargain collectively—but not to strike—without government interference, and they did so for more than two decades before the nation's industrial workers gained similar rights under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. Ultimately, the Lloyd-La Follette Act paved the way for the formation of such federal unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees.

Protection of Whistleblowers

Because it protects the rights of federal employees to communicate with Congress, the Lloyd-La Follette Act can be regarded as the first federal "whistleblowers' protection act," for presumably it allowed employees to expose corruption and malfeasance in the agencies and departments for which they worked. In the courts, application of the act turned into battles over the free speech protections of the First Amendment and due process considerations under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

A case in point is Arnett v. Kennedy, which the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1974. Wayne Kennedy worked for the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) in Chicago. In 1972 the regional director of the OEO discharged him for "cause," including "reckless" charges Kennedy had made that the director had offered OEO funds as a bribe to a representative of a community action organization. Contending that his free-speech and due-process rights had been violated, Kennedy filed suit in federal district court, where he was joined by 18 other plaintiffs, who feared that under the Lloyd-La Follette Act they could be discharged for any off-duty public comments they might make. In ruling against Kennedy, the Court held that he was not entitled to any constitutional protections other than those afforded under the terms of the act and that the "cause" provision of the act was not impermissibly vague. The question of whether Kennedy's charges were true was never at issue; the sole issue was whether the Lloyd-La Follette Act gave the director the right to fire him.

In response to numerous and widespread charges of government waste and wrongdoing, Congress passed the Whistle-blowers Protection Act of 1989, which, again, should have afforded protection to federal employees. Yet the federal government continues to wrestle with the issue. In 1997, for instance, the Senate, over the objections of the Clinton administration and the Justice Department, passed an intelligence authorization act that would have extended the protections of the Lloyd-La Follette Act to federal whistleblowers who revealed classified information to Congress without going through their superiors. The move came in response to at least two incidents. One involved a CIA analyst who was fired because of his intention to inform Congress about the true state of Pakistan's nuclear capability. The other involved a senior State Department official who was stripped of his security clearance because he informed a member of the House Intelligence Committee about CIA wrongdoing in Guatemala. A later, similar case involved an FBI forensic metallurgist whose superiors prohibited him from telling Congress that he had been pressured by law enforcement officials to endorse what turned out to be a false theory about the cause of the crash of TWA Flight 800 in 1996. In testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight, his attorneys argued that the FBI's gag order was a direct violation of the Lloyd-La Follette Act.

Key Players

La Follette, Robert M. (1855-1925): La Follette was born in Primrose, Wisconsin, and began his career as a lawyer. He was a U.S. congressman from 1885 to 1891, governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906, and a U.S. senator from 1906 until his death. In the 1924 presidential election he received one-sixth of the vote as the Progressive Party candidate.

Lloyd, James Tighman (1857-1944): Lloyd was born in Canton, Missouri, and was a sheriff and prosecuting attorney before joining the U.S. House of Representatives (1897-1917), where as a Democrat he was minority whip for eight years. After leaving the House, he practiced law in Washington, D.C.

Pendleton, George (1825-1889): "Gentleman George"Pendleton was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and served in the Ohio senate before serving in Congress (1857-1865). Later he was a U.S. senator (1879-1885) and ambassador to Germany (1885-1889). His wife, Alice, was the daughter of Francis Scott Key.

See also: La Follette Seamen's Act; Wagner Act.



Hanslow, Kurt L. The Emerging Law of Labor Relations in Public Employment. IRL Paperback No. 4. Ithaca, NY: New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Cornell University, 1967.

La Follette, Belle Case, and Fola La Follette. Robert M. La Follette, 2 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

Unger, Nancy C. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.


Alvin J. Arnett, Director, Office of Economic Opportunity, et al. v. Wayne Kennedy et al. 416 U.S. 134; 94 S.Ct. 1633.

—Michael J. O'Neal