Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Our New Civil Service Law

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Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz by Carl Schurz
Our New Civil Service Law
From Harper's Weekly, May 29, 1897, p. 530.


OUR NEW CIVIL SERVICE LAW.


Of the attacks recently made by Republicans upon the reformed civil service system, the new law enacted in this State is the most characteristic. Its history deserves to be remembered. In his inaugural address Governor Black, with a flippancy of tone most unusual in official utterances, expressed himself in favor of taking the “starch” out of the present civil service law. On March 16 a newspaper, apparently possessed of confidential information, reported that a bill embodying the Governor's ideas had been prepared, providing for a division, half and half, of the civil service examinations between the independent civil service boards and the appointing officers, thus discarding the fundamental principle of civil service reform, which is universally accepted wherever the reformed system exists — the principle that the appointing officers, who are always exposed to political or other pressure, must have no control over the management of the civil service examinations. But weeks elapsed without the bill being heard of, and the belief gained ground that the Governor would permit the session to pass over without any attempt at further legislation on the subject. Suddenly, hardly two weeks before the adjournment, the Governor's bill was sprung upon the Legislature for immediate action. Public sentiment expressed itself emphatically against it, on the ground that it would restore all the abuses of the spoils system. But, after two hurried hearings granted by the committees to which the bill had been referred, the opposition it found among the Republican members of the Legislature was suppressed by caucus dictation, and the measure was put through under whip and spur — one of those “snap” operations resorted to by unscrupulous and despotic party leadership when it seeks to steal an advantage.

On May 6 a hearing was had before the Governor, in which the friends of civil service reform maintained, in the light of experience as well as of reason, the following points: (1) That an honest competitive system is the only one sure to open public employment to all classes of the people on equal terms by rendering powerless the aristocracy of influence; (2) that the bill, by substantially turning over the civil service examinations to the appointing power, would expose the appointing officers again to the full force of the pressure of influence, and thereby, as all experience proved, restore the abuses of spoils politics; (3) that inasmuch as it impaired the competitive system, it violated the Constitution, which demands competitive examinations whenever practicable; (4) that the machinery it provided for would prove practically unworkable; and (5) that if the working of the present system was in any way defective and required improvement, the Governor, if he had the will, had also, ample power unde the existing law to remedy such defects and to institute such improvements. The Governor listened to these arguments without asking a question and without interjecting a word; and then, a week later, signed the bill, and filed a memorandum giving his reasons for doing so.

What has the Governor to say? Here is the old story again, that under the system advocated by the civil service reformers “the recent graduate of the high-school or college would be almost certain of appointment” — and this in the face of the well-known fact established by statistics over and over again that of the appointees under the competitive system graduates of higher educational institutions form an astonishingly small percentage. Here is the other old assertion again, that department chiefs know best what kind of men they want for their work, and that under their sense of responsibility they would be careful to select just such men as the duties to be performed demand — and this in the face of the unquestioned experience of many years that appointing officers, when unprotected by a civil service law, are always exposed to a political pressure which constantly forces the appointment of men upon them of whom they know little or nothing, and transforms their own discretion into mere subserviency to influence. It was the widespread recognition of this very fact, and of the abuses springing from it, that led to the enactment of the civil service laws as a remedy. But for those notorious abuses such laws would never have been heard of.

However, the plea for the discretion of the appointing officers forms the backbone of Governor Black's memorandum, and therefore demands closer inspection. The Governor insists that the head of a State, or of a public department, bears a heavy responsibility; that he will therefore be very careful in the exercise of his power as an appointing officer; that consequently he must be left untrammelled in the selection of his subordinates, who should be not only men of scholastic qualifications, but who should also possess “experience, tact, character, and all those qualities recognized by every sensible man as essential to first-class service.” Whether the candidate has those qualities, the Governor thinks, the appointing officer must be left free to ascertain in his own way, to his own satisfaction. Governor Black will have no reason to complain if he examine his acts to find out what he means by all this. He had a Commissioner of Insurance to appoint — a very important officer. Deeply sensible of his official responsibility, Governor Black, of course, looked over the whole State to discover a person fitted for that place, not only by scholastic attainments, but by “experience, tact, character, and all those qualities recognized by sensible men everywhere as essential to first-class service.” And then, being unhampered in his choice by any civil service rules, the Governor selected Mr. Lou Payne, a man who had been branded in a public proceeding by an eminent member of his own party as having been for years a stench in the nostrils of the community, and whom several State Senators, in spite of their disposition to please the Governor, found too nauseous to vote for when his appointment came up for confirmation. The people, by the way, undoubtedly think that it would have been much better for the public interest, as well as for the honor of the State, had Governor Black, with all his vaunted “sense of responsibility,” not been unhampered by any civil service rules in making this as well as some other appointments.

This fairly illustrates what Governor Black's own standards of “experience, tact, and character” are to fit a man for high public place; or it shows that a standard not his own was forced upon him by influences or considerations foreign to a proper sense of duty and responsibility. At any rate, it strikingly demonstrates that his plea is not for an improved service, but for opening the floodgates of spoils politics in the worst sense. It is hardly worth while to answer the pretence he gravely puts forth that if appointing officers, with all their responsibility, are accessible to political influence, civil service examiners, without such responsibility, must be still more accessible. Every intelligent person knows that appointing officers, unprotected by civil service rules, have been controlled by such influence, and that civil service examiners have not been so controlled. In fact, it is just because the civil service examiners have generally proved inaccessible to political influence that the present assault of the spoils politicians upon the competitive system is made.

But the Governor's memorandum has its merits. By its strenuous plea against interference by civil service rules with the executive officers in the exercise of the appointing power, illustrated by the Governor's own example in the use of that power, it reveals the true purpose of the new law so clearly that the hypocritical talk about “favoring an honest and efficient service” can no longer disguise it. It shows that law to be so directly intended to subvert the competitive system contemplated by the State Constitution that upon the Governor's own presentation of the case alone the courts will be bound to declare the law unconstitutional as soon as it is properly brought before them. There is hardly a more striking instance of self-condemnation on record.

Carl Schurz.    


This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.