Happy Anniversary to Federal Civil Servants

On January 16, 1883, the Civil Service Commission was created. Federal employment has changed but the bureaucracy and much of the original philosophy still exist.

135th Anniversary of the Federal Civil Service

On January 16, 1883, Congress passed “An act to regulate and improve the civil service of the United States.” That was 135 years ago. The new law created the Civil Service Commission. The law read, in part:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the President is authorized to appoint, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, three persons, not more than two of whom shall be adherents of the same party, as Civil Service Commissioners, and said three commissioners shall constitute the United States Civil Service Commission. Said commissioners shall hold no other official place under the United States.

While the Civil Service Commission (CSC) no longer exists, the CSC was the start of the modern federal employment system for the federal government.

Salaries for Civil Service Commissioners

The commissioners were to be paid $3,500 per year. For that era, that was a good salary. By comparison, the mean wage in 1880 for a skilled occupation was about $2.26 per day. If a person worked 365 days a year, that would come out to about $825 per year. If a person did not work on a Sunday, the yearly wage would have been about $707, and probably less than that, as many people did not get paid on holidays or when they were not at work.

On the other hand, in 1874, a Congressman’s salary was $5,000 per year. That would be the equivalent of more than $138,444 in 2017. The $3,500 annual salary for Civil Service Commissioners in 1883 would be approximately $93,423 today.

Benefits were also considerably different in that era and not as generous. Paid holidays for federal employees, for example, were rare compared to the current system of paid holidays.

Requirement for Examination and Regional Apportionment of Appointments

The 1883 law also required competitive examinations for filling many federal jobs.

First, for open, competitive examinations for testing the fitness of Competitive ex. applicants. for the public service now classified or to be classified here-under. Such examinations shall be practical in their character, and so far as may be shall relate to those matters which will fairly test the relative capacity and fitness of the persons examined to discharge the duties of the service into which they seek to be appointed.

It may also be of interest to today’s civil servants to note that the original law required appointments to these federal jobs to be “apportioned among the several States and Territories and the District of Columbia upon the basis of population as ascertained at the last preceding census. Every application for an examination shall contain, among other things, a statement, under oath, setting forth his or her actual bona fide residence at the time of making the application, as well as how long he or she has been a resident of such place.”

The law also created a probationary period for new federal employees although no length of time for the probationary period was given.

10% of Employees Originally Covered by Civil Service Law

When the law was first implemented, about 10% of federal employees were covered. The new civil service law allowed an outgoing president to leave his own appointees in place by converting their jobs to civil service jobs. This may have been the first example of political appointees “burrowing in” to career jobs after a presidential election.

As different parties won elections in successive years, (1884, 1888, 1892, 1896), the practical result was that most federal jobs had become civil service jobs.

Why Was the CSC Created?

The Civil Service Commission was created in an attempt to create a workforce of qualified people to do the work of the federal government. Using a competitive examination as a way to select the best qualified people for federal jobs was a significant move away from filling jobs based on political affiliation.

The 1883 law also made it illegal to fire or demote federal officials for political reasons and prohibited soliciting campaign donations on federal property.

In effect, the law was an attempt to end what was known as the “spoils system.” Under this system, which reached its peak under President Andrew Jackson, the philosophy was “to the victor belong the spoils.” That meant, in effect, the party that won the election got to appoint federal employees. The system was also known as “political patronage.”

Assassination of President James Garfield

The shooting of President Garfield in 1881 was influential in creating an impetus behind the 1883 civil service law.

President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau. Guiteau was a lawyer who thought the new president owed him a federal job for his “vital assistance” in helping Garfield win the election in 1880. Garfield died two months after he was shot. Vice President Chester A. Arthur became president and, after he became president, President Arthur supported the legislation for civil reform.

Significant Changes to the Civil Service System

There have been significant changes in the federal civil service system. Competitive examinations were largely discarded in the 1980’s after a series of lawsuits contending the examinations were unfair to minority job applicants who often had lower test scores on the examinations.

Some federal jobs now require a written exam but there is not a single civil service “test” covering all federal positions. Many federal jobs no longer require a traditional test. The vacancy announcements on the USAJOBS website indicate if a specific written test is necessary.

In 2015, the government brought back the the use of a civil service exam for use in some agencies. The new tests use avatars and videos to try and simulate challenges that could confront employees. The exams are also intended to test an applicant’s reasoning and problem-solving skills. A correct answer leads to a harder question and a wrong answer leads to an easier question or option.

Civil Service Reform Act of 1978

The Civil Service Reform Act (CSRA) was passed under the Carter administration. The rationale for the new law was, in part, based on a conviction that too many federal employees could not be fired even if they were incompetent or had engaged in misconduct. The previously existing disciplinary system was considered too complex and outdated. There was also a common belief that the federal government was not efficient and there was not sufficient political control over the federal bureaucracy by the president.

The CSRA was intended to create a more efficient system and more responsive civil service system. It emphasized performance standards to be used for rewarding and retaining employees and created a Senior Executive Service with an ability of agencies to move senior people into positions and locations where they were needed the most. In part, the new law was also designed to try to eliminate manipulation of the older civil service system.

The CSRA also created new protection for employees disclosing illegal or improper government conduct.

The CSRA abolished the Civil Service Commission and, instead, created the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). It also created new agencies including the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Office of Special Counsel. Some functions of the former CSC were also assigned to other agencies.

Future of the Civil Service

As the federal civil service has changed, there are still calls in Congress and elsewhere for more changes to be made to create a better civil service system. The pay and classification structure used by the federal government has become splintered and often considered outdated. There are periodic attempts to change these systems. No doubt, changes will occur in these areas in the future.

Many agencies now pay higher salaries than other agencies. There have already been some attempts to remedy the discrepancies in some agencies, and further changes are likely to be implemented.

The federal bureaucracy is slow and resistant to change. Making changes in Congress is also very difficult and time-consuming. But, despite resistance and obstacles, changes do occur in federal employment.

The current system, with significant change, has lasted for at least 135 years.

Happy anniversary wishes to all of our readers who are primarily current or retired federal government employees!

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47