The United States is considered to be a nation of laws. This usually refers to law having an influence within a society, and acting as a constraint on behavior including the behavior of government officials. As a result, government agencies at all levels within the United States are created by and operate under laws, rules, regulations and procedures.
Federal employees are hired to apply and enforce a range of laws that have an impact on many facets of our lives as citizens of the United States. They do not create the laws, but are charged with applying and enforcing them. Such laws help to ensure pure food and drugs, foster safe and reliable automobiles, investigate major transportation accidents to improve safety, carry out research on many questions such as improving crop yields, and oversee grants for major infrastructure projects such as new and improved mass transit systems.
One of those laws was passed to help ensure the Federal employees hired to apply and enforce acts passed by Congress and approved by the President are knowledgeable, qualified to fill their jobs, and possess the training needed to carry out the work they are assigned impartially and objectively. This law is known as the Pendleton Act, named for Senator George Pendleton of Ohio, who was one of the primary sponsors of the bill. It was passed on January 16, 1883 after the assassination of President James A. Garfield, who had been in office for just four months. President Garfield was shot by a man who believed he was owed “…a patronage position for his ‘vital assistance’ in securing [President] Garfield’s election….” The purpose of the Act was to establish the principle “…that positions in the Federal Government should be awarded on the basis of merit instead of political affiliation.”
This was to be accomplished by selecting Federal Government employees through a competitive process rather than relying on ties to politicians or political affiliation. This replaced the spoils system, where most Federal employees were removed when a new President was elected. New employees appointed by the new President often placed unqualified individuals in Federal jobs because the only qualification that mattered was being of assistance in getting the President elected.
The Pendleton Act was later amended to provide just cause standards to prevent unwarranted or abusive removal of Federal employees such as being removed for political or other non-merit reasons.
These two laws, in concert, have helped to provide the U.S. with reliable, honest and well trained employees who can be depended upon to apply and enforce the laws passed by the United States Congress and signed by the President in an impartial and uniform manner.
Recently some actions have occurred which caused this author to think about the Pendleton Act and why it was passed. One of these was the recent passage in the House of a bill (H.R. 5620) that would make it easier to fire employees of the Department of Veterans Affairs. It passed in the House of Representatives but was not passed by the U.S. Senate.
A second was a comment by the White House press secretary who recently told Federal employees who disagreed with the President’s ban on immigrants that they should “…either get with the program or they can go.”
In my 32 years of Federal service I found that Federal employees were concerned with properly applying the laws, rules, regulations and procedures that established the agencies for which they work and guided the work that they performed. Because they are not hired based on their political affiliation or their connection with a politician, because they are hired based on their knowledge and ability to do the job, and because they are protected from being fired for political or other non-merit reasons, they by and large carry out their duties and responsibilities of applying and enforcing the laws and regulations for which they are responsible in an impartial and objective manner.
Consider the term political hack, which was often applied to those who filled Federal government positions prior to the enactment of the Pendleton Act. They knew very little about the work that was required, but focused on getting the party into office and facilitating its remaining in power as long as possible. This is quite different from the current Federal employees who are examined to be sure they have the education, knowledge and experience needed to carry out the often highly technical and always critical jobs for which they are applying.
Let me close with two recommendations for the President and the Congress. First, if you believe changes need to be made, involve Federal employees in the process of improving operations or improving laws and regulations rather than trying to bully and brow beat them. This will enable the President and the Congress to benefit from these employees’ knowledge and experience of what works and where improvements can be made to the existing acts.
Second, before trying to quickly and as completely as possible overturn, reverse or abolish existing laws, rules, regulations and procedures, especially those that established the Federal civil service, the President and Congress need to think about why these acts were put in place. It is likely that removing civil service protections, and brow beating and bullying Federal employees will create more problems than they solve. After all, the Federal civil service laws have given the United States one of the least corrupt, most honest and most impartial civil services of any country in the world.