Civil Service Act of 1883

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


William V. Luneburg

Since the formation of the United States under the Constitution, the government has taken various and sometimes controversial approaches to the hiring of federal and state administrative staff, or the civil service. In general, the basic choice has appeared to be between, on the one hand, an administrative staff that represents and reflects "the people" (the democratic vision) and, on the other, one that is made up of long-term professionals with the knowledge and experience necessary to carry out the complex and demanding tasks of government (the technocratic vision).


During the colonial years, it was not uncommon to fill public offices with those who paid for them. This experience, along with dislike of the British colonial bureaucracy, gave ample basis for the leaders of the new republic to distrust public employees. During his two terms as president, George Washington insisted on "fitness of character" as the prime qualification to hold a government job. This standard, it was hoped, would create a "patrician" civil service that would avoid what many saw as the pitfalls of democracy. Removals from office were rare.

With the rise of political parties after 1800, it was only a matter of time before newly elected chief executives would want people of their own political persuasions holding the important positions in the administrative hierarchy. It was not, however, until the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 that appointment to and removal from public office on partisan grounds was fully embraced as the appropriate approach to staffing the public service. After this time, public service positions would be handed out according to the "spoils system"in other words, the party victorious in an election could hand out civil service positions as a kind of plunder (spoils) to members of the party or anyone else it deemed fit to serve. This system would ensure that government was not the tool of the wealthy, powerful, and privileged but rather more democratic, with staff drawn from a more representative cross section of the electorate and therefore (presumably) more responsive to the popular will. Although the spoils system was criticized for filling offices with incompetents and creating vast incentives to corruption, those objections fell on deaf ears for over half a century.


Following the Civil War, the movement for civil service reform intensified. The public was questioning the spoils system on moral grounds. In addition, many legislators had come to believe that the increasingly complicated industrial economy required a high level of knowledge and experience among civil service employees. Such qualifications were necessary for public policy to be adequately formulated and implemented.

It took the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by a crazed disappointed office-seeker to make reform a matter of the highest urgency. Ironically, the vice president who became the next president, Chester A. Arthur, had himself been a firm believer in and beneficiary of the spoils system. But, to the surprise of his former political allies, Arthur, believing that his reelection would depend on reaching out to more reformist and independent elements in the electorate, threw his support behind the enactment of civil service reform.


The popular feeling against political patronage was running so strong that both Democrats and Republicans joined forces to enact the first Civil Service Act, known as the Pendleton Act (22 Stat. 403), in 1883. This act, largely drafted by the New York Civil Service Reform Association, created the Civil Service Commission, which was directed to create a system of competitive examinations to fill vacancies in federal service positions and to ensure that the civil service was not used for political purposes. Originally only about 10 percent of federal positions were included within what was known as the "classified" service (chosen by examination), but that percentage grew to over 70 percent by 1919.

The Pendleton Act had closed the "front door" to civil service. But the "back door," or removal from office, remained unprotected from party politics. Indeed, it was common for members of the classified service to be removed for political reasons. In 1897, however, President William McKinley issued an executive order providing that removals of classified service personnel could only be made for "just cause." Moreover, classified employees were entitled to a written explanation for the removal and the right to make a reply. In 1912 Congress passed the Lloyd-LaFollette Act (P.L. 336, 37 Stat. 539), which prevented future presidents from interfering with these rights on their own initiative and, in addition, expanded to some degree the procedural protections against removal. The Civil Service Commission created a system for administrative review of removal decisions to ensure that proper procedures had been followed.

In 1944, anticipating that a wave of World War II veterans would seek and hold jobs in the federal government, Congress enacted the Veterans Preference Act (P.L. 359, 58 Stat. 387). For veterans only, this act expanded the procedural protections beyond removals from office to other significant adverse personnel actions (for example, thirty-day suspensions) and provided for review by the Civil Service Commission of the appropriateness of removals and other actions.


By the 1970s dissatisfaction with the operation of the civil service system had become so widespread that legislators knew they had to take action. Procedural protections for employees were viewed as inadequate. Many criticized the Civil Service Commission for failing to protect employees' rights, particularly when allegations of racial, sexual, and other types of discrimination were made in response to proposed personnel actions. As unions grew among the federal workforce, federal employees and others voiced concerns that no independent impartial agency existed to oversee the federal sector's labor management program. These critics also saw a need to strengthen the role of the system for resolving disputes that involved unionized employees and their employing agencies.

To deal with these and other concerns, in 1978 Congress enacted the Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) (P.L. 95-454, 92 Stat. 1111), which radically restructured the civil service framework. The statute defined the principles for a merit system:

Recruitment should be from qualified individuals from appropriate sources in an endeavor to achieve a work force from all segments of society, and selection and advancement should be determined solely on the basis of relative ability, knowledge, and skills, after fair and open competition which assures that all receive equal opportunity.

The act also prohibited certain practices such as the preferred hiring of family members (nepotism) and established rules for removing employees for inadequate performance. It also created a new tier of civil servants, the Senior Executive Service, allowing more flexibility in administration at the top of the government.

The act also created a new executive branch agency, the Office of Personnel Management, to establish the rules governing the civil service. Under the act, federal employees of certain types (veterans and members of the classified service) can resort to an independent administrative "court" (the Merit Systems Protection Board) to determine if actions taken against them are appropriate. The Office of Special Counsel investigates and prosecutes before the board cases where employees have been the victims of prohibited practices (such as nepotism). The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has primary jurisdiction over the implementation and enforcement of antidiscrimination law in federal employment. Finally, another new agency, the Federal Labor Relations Authority, oversees collective bargaining and the process for dispute resolution involving federal employees who belong to a union.

See also: Civil Service Reform Act; Hatch Act; Veterans Preference Act of 1944.


Ingraham, Patricia W., and Carolyn Ban., eds. Legislating Bureaucratic Change: The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

Mosher, Frederick. Democracy and the Public Service. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Pfiffner, James P., and Douglas A. Brook, eds. The Future of Merit: Twenty Years After the Civil Service Reform Act. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.

Van Riper, Paul. History of the United States Civil Service. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1958.

The Assassination of James Garfield

James Garfield was assassinated by Charles Guiteau, a lawyer with a long history of erratic behavior. In the 1860s Guiteau had joined the Oneida Community, a communal religious movement espousing free love, but he soon argued with the group's leaders and was asked to leave. After passing the bar in Illinois, he pretended to collect debts for clients, but kept the money for himself and maintained that it was irretrievable. Guiteau was frequently jailed for his debts. He toured the country as an evangelist (one newspaper reported that he had "fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his countenance"), and again later making speeches on behalf of presidential candidate Garfield. Eventually feeling that his efforts on Garfield's behalf had earned him an ambassadorship to Viennathough later he thought Paris might be nicerhe began to besiege the White House with letters and visits. Receiving no encouragement, he became embittered and increasingly impoverished. Guiteau blamed his plight on Secretary of State James G. Blaine, who, pushed beyond endurance, cried, "Never speak to me again on the Paris consulship as long as you live!" Increasingly unhinged, Guiteau wrote to Garfield, "Mr. Blaine is a wicked man, and you ought to demand his immediate resignation; otherwise you and the Republican Party will come to grief." On July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot President Garfield in a Washington train station. Garfield survived for three months after the shooting, finally succumbing on September 19th after a spectacular demonstration of malpractice, in which sixteen bickering doctors had managed to turn a nonfatal wound into a raging infection. Attempting to use the then-uncommon defense of medical malpractice, Guiteau said at his trial, "Your honor, I admit to the shooting of the president, but not the killing." Most historians agree with his assessment; nevertheless, he was convicted and hanged.

views updated


Early advocates of a civil service believed that it was necessary to reform the spoils system, a process by which an individual who supported the election of a candidate was rewarded with a position in the government. Rather than personal favors, these reformers wanted some type of test of merit, or required qualifications for persons appointed to non-elected positions in government. Reform supporters won a victory in 1871 when legislation, adopted as a rider to an appropriation act, authorized the establishment of regulations for admission into the civil service with regard to knowledge, ability, and other job performance factors. President Ulysses S. Grant (18691877) appointed George William Curtis as chairman of an Advisory Board of the Civil Service, later called the Civil Service Commission. But after two years of significant pioneer work by the commission, Congress failed to grant additional funds for its support. Nonetheless President Rutherford B. Hayes (18771881), Grant's successor, continued to encourage the reformers, who regrouped in 1880 to organize the Civil Service Reform Association.

The problem was highlighted in 1881, when a deranged office seeker assassinated President James A. Garfield. Civil Service reformers exploited the president's death by convincing the public that the spoils system was responsible for his murder. The Civil Service Act of 1883also known as the Pendleton Act after its sponsor, Senator George H. Pendletonestablished a bipartisan commission to oversee a merit system of examinations for specific public service positions. About 13,000 positions, less than ten percent of the civilian positions in the federal government at that time, were classified under the merit system, and applicants for these positions were subject to competitive examinations.

The Pendleton Act transformed the civil service and greatly affected the organization of political parties. By 1900, government workers were becoming more professional and better educated, and in the matter of their selection, political influence was being replaced by business skill and overall competency. Other legislation followed the Civil Service Act of 1883. In 1903, extensive rule changes were made; in 1920 the Civil Service Retirement Act was adopted; the Classification Act was passed in 1923, defining grades, qualifications, and salary ranges; and in 1940, the Hatch Act limited the political activity of federal officials.

A series of executive orders was also important in shifting the emphasis from a necessary political reform to a positive search for better procedures and personnel. Some of the more important of these directives reflected the changing nature of national life, its economy, and its values. After the Great Depression began in 1929, for example, the federal government expanded its activities and its personnel. To facilitate policy formulation, a 1931 executive order established a Council for Personnel Administration to link the new personnel services of the federal departments to the Civil Service Commission. By 1938 the number of federal employees had increased greatly, and an executive order in that year provided for better personnel management, on-the-job training, and extension of the merit system.

As the tensions that led to World War II (19391945) increased, the government tightened its personnel procedures to secure greater efficiency in the face of the developing threat of war. In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945) issued an executive order establishing the Liaison Office for Personnel Management, directly under presidential control. When World War II expanded the civil service to 3.8 million people, the merit system was virtually abandoned, but it was revived at the end of the war.

The exposure of the corruption in the Watergate scandal under President Richard M. Nixon (19691974) prompted further reform. During the administration of President Jimmy Carter (19771981), Congress passed the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, the most sweeping reform legislation since the Pendleton Act in 1883. It abolished the Civil Service Commission and split its functions among an Office of Personnel Management, a Federal Labor Relations Authority, and an independent quasi-judicial Merit System Protection Board.

See also: Spoils System


Hoogenboom, Ari. Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 18651883. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1961.

Rose, Jonathan. "From Spoils to Merit: 195 Years of the U.S. Civil Service." Scholastic Update, September 20, 1985.

Van Riper, Paul. History of the United States Civil Service. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1958.

Weisenberger, Bernard A. "Reinventing Government, 1882." American Heritage, February/March 1994.

views updated

Civil Service Reform Act (1978)

Robert G. Vaughn

The Civil Service Reform Act (P.L. 95-454, 92 Stat. 111), the first comprehensive civil service law since 1883, fulfilled the campaign promise of President Jimmy Carter to reform the federal civil service. Along with Reorganization Plan Number 2, it abolished the Civil Service Commission and created three new agencies to implement these reforms: the United States Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Of particular concern were the problems of employees with poor job performance and the protection of federal employees who "blew the whistle" on government misconduct and fraud.

The legislation, however, contains two themes that at times are inconsistent with one another. First, the act seeks greater accountability of federal employees for their performance. It does so by increasing the discretion and authority of federal managers. The provisions related to job performance reflected public and congressional concerns about the performance of federal agencies. Second, the act emphasizes protection of the rights of federal employees from abuses by federal managers. This aspect of the act was a response to the constitutional crisis of the Watergate scandals and President Richard Nixon's abuse of the civil service system.

To increase the accountability of federal employees, the act gives federal managers and politically appointed officials greater control over personnel policy. The highest-ranking civil servants become part of a Senior Executive Service over which agency officials assert greater authority in assignment and pay. The act authorizes merit pay and bonuses that give senior officials greater control over middle-level managers. Under the act, pay, job retention, and discipline depend on job performance. In addition, the act increases the ability of each government agency to create its own standards and procedures within the framework of the act.

The discretion and authority of federal managers, however, can threaten the legitimate rights of federal employees. Congress believed that these rights ensured the impartiality of the civil service and helped to guarantee the rule of law. Thus the act increases protections for federal employees. It prohibits a number of personnel practices that constitute abuses of the personnel system, such as favoritism. But the most important provision protects federal employee "whistleblowers" who disclose information that they reasonably believe provides evidence of "a violation of law, rule or regulation, gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a specific and substantial danger to public health and safety."

The act provided a statutory basis for protections accorded to employees whom managers seek to discipline. It also created a quasijudicial agency, the United States Merit Systems Protection Board, to adjudicate appeals by disciplined employees. To help enforce the prohibitions against certain personnel practices, the act established an Office of Special Counsel with broad powers to investigate, adjudicate, and remedy violations of these provisions, including disciplinary actions against federal managers who commit such practices. Finally, the act supplies a statutory basis for labor relations in the federal sector and grants federal employee unions a number of rights to collective bargaining.

See also: Civil Service Acts; Whistleblower Protection Laws.


Ingraham, Particia W., and David H. Rosenbloom, eds. The Promise and Paradox of Civil Service Reform. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

Vaughn, Robert G. Merit Systems Protection Board: Rights and Remedies, rev. ed. New York: Law Journal-Seminars Press, 2003.

views updated


PENDLETON ACT (16 January 1883), the federal government's central civil service law, was written by Dorman B. Eaton, sponsored by Sen. George H. Pendleton of Ohio, and forced through Congress by public opinion. The act aimed to reform the spoils system by eliminating many political appointments in favor of jobs only awarded to candidates who met predetermined uniform standards of merit. It reestablished a Civil Service Commission to prepare rules for a limited classified civil service, which the president could expand at discretion. Competitive examinations determined the qualifications of applicants, while appointments were apportioned among the states according to population.


Fish, Carl Russell. The Civil Service and the Patronage. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963.

Chester McA.Destler/c. w.

See alsoCivil Service ; Patronage, Political ; Spoils System .