The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Civil Service Reform

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Edition of 1920. See also Spoils system and Merit system on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

CIVIL SERVICE REFORM, the improvement of the civil service in methods of appointment, rules of conduct, etc.; in the United States, the movement for the appointment of public servants according to their fitness for their work, rather than their services to the party in power.

In the year 1835 a debate took place in the Senate of the United States on the condition of the civil service, and especially an the abuse of the power of appointment and removal to serve party ends instead of public ends. Among the senators who took part in the debate were the three whom history has judged the strongest in that famous body, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, Henry Clay of Kentucky and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Differing widely in their views of party policy and rivals in ambition, they were of one mind as to the true nature of the public service and as to the errors and evils that had crept into it. Mr. Webster, then in the prime of his young manhood, had already won the title of the “Great Expounder of the Constitution.” He thus stated the idea in which the others heartily joined: “The theory of our institutions is plain; it is that government is an agency created for the good of the people, and that every person in office is the agent and servant of the people. Offices are created, not for the benefit of those who are to fill them, but for the public convenience.”

There is no doubt that this is indeed the true theory of our institutions. It is to be found in all the early writings of the men who formed the government. It is the basis of the Declaration of Independence, that “governments are instituted among men” to secure the rights of “the governed” from whose consent “they derive their just powers.” When our national government was founded it was the only one in which offices were not a privilege, but a trust, imposed by the choice of the people and for their sole interest. Neither birth nor rank nor wealth gave any title to them. Each of the men who held them was intended to be, in the words of Webster, “the agent and the servant of the people.”

This theory had grown out of the needs of the American people, and fitted them closely. As colonists they had had to work and fight hard for the right to live and the means to live as free men in a wild land, far from the homes of their fathers, amid many perils and hardships. There was no ruling class among them. To attend to the common business of each little settlement, they were led to choose among their own number the agents best fitted for the task. These in the early days were, as in the towns of New England they still are, “select-men,” “trustees.” The name shows what was expected of them, and what was their title to employment. As the towns were grouped in counties and the counties in States, the public business grew, became more complex and required a larger number of agents with different duties and powers, but the idea held. They were still agents, selected men, trustees. From the most modest unpaid village or town officer to the President of the United States, the commander-in-chief of the army and navy of the nation and its representative in the eyes of the world, no man in the public service in this country is anything but the agent, the trustee of the people.

One result of the growth of the public business has been that only a small part of the agents for doing this business are chosen directly by the people. Those thus chosen are entrusted with the employment or appointment of a very large number of others. The chief difference between the two classes is that those elected are expected to carry on the public business in a way that the majority of the voters are in general agreed upon. They are the choice of the majority party and, so far as the rights of all permit, they are the agents of that party. When the views and wishes of the majority change, these agents are usually changed also. But the far greater number of agents for doing the public business are appointed or employed. The duties of nearly all these are the same no matter what may be the policy of the majority party. In the national government, for instance, the main work for those in office, except the highest, is the collection and expenditure of the taxes. The taxes are collected on goods brought into this country for sale or on goods made here for sale; in other words, customs, duties, and internal revenue taxes. Parties differ widely as to which class of taxes should be the higher, and as to how high the custom duties should be. But all parties agree that the taxes of all sorts should be collected according to law honestly and fairly, that the money should be carefully accounted for and none of it stolen or wasted. Agents for this purpose need to be good business men of character and ability; they do not need to be of one party or another. Again, the Post-Office Department does a great part of the business of the government. It collects mail matter of all kinds, transports it, delivers it at home or abroad, makes large payments on money orders and sells the stamps by which the cost of its work is paid. As to this work, there is no difference at all between parties and there has never been. The agents engaged in it need only to be honest and efficient. They do not need to be of one party or another. In all offices where the duties are of this sort, it is plain that those engaged in them should be selected for merit only, promoted as the service requires and removed only for failure or incapacity to do their work in the best manner.

Such a policy would answer to Webster's statement of the theory of our institutions and to the practice of the early Presidents. Washington declared: “In every nomination to office I have endeavored, so far as my own knowledge extended or information could be obtained, to make fitness of character my primary object.” In the first 39 years of the history of the government the six Presidents made only 112 removals. A few years later, when Webster had to define anew the true theory of the public service, a very different practice had grown up. It was frankly described in that same debate by Mr. Marcy, a senator from New York. He said: “The politicians of the United States are not so fastidious as some gentlemen are as to disclosing the principles on which they act. They see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victor belongs the spoils of the enemy.” This theory is plainly the opposite of the true one. Under it elections do not merely settle the policy of the country, as to which parties may unselfishly differ. They become contests for spoils as well and tend to become more and more contests for spoils and less disputes as to principle. The spoils are the offices, the places of trust and these tend to be given not to those best fitted to perform their duties, but to those who have claims on the party. The service is hurt by putting out tried men and putting in untried men and since the untried men are chosen for other reasons than fitness, they are apt to be poorer officers. Since they owe their employment to party favor and do not get it on their merits, they are likely to be less faithful and less honest. They are liable to be turned out at the next election and they are tempted to make all they can from their places. The offices tend to be regarded as created not “for the public convenience” but “for the benefit of those who fill them.” The service tends to become poorer, less honest, more costly. Any large private business conducted in this way would surely come to disaster. So would the business of the government if it had not the pockets of the taxpayers to draw from.

The Spoils System. — The spoils system prevailed in the service of the United States government for about a half-century after 1830. It also prevailed in greater or less degree in the service of the several States and of the larger cities. It was not confined to any one party. All were more or less corrupted by it. The effect on the politics of the country was very bad. The pressure for public employment, always strong, became extreme. Probably the election of 1860 was as largely decided by moral conviction as any in the history of the country. Yet, one month after he took office, President Lincoln groaned under the burden of this pressure. “I wish,” he wrote, in his simple phrase, “I could get time to attend to the Southern question. I think I know what is wanted and believe I could do something toward quieting the rising discontent, but the office-seekers demand all my time, I am like a man so busy letting rooms in one end of his house that he cannot stop to put out the fire that is burning in the other.” In the crisis of the war for the Union he was visited by a committee of New York politicians, intent on patronage. The chairman opened his address with a reference to the “awful burden of the nation's fate weighing on the president.” “Gentlemen,” interrupted Mr. Lincoln, “it is not the fate of the nation that worries me most just now; it is your pesky post office.” These incidents throw a strong light on the waste of time, of money and of strength imposed by the spoils system. The degradation and pollution of politics were even worse effects. The office-holders, living on the spoils of the place and greedy for more, seized the organization of their party, whichever it happened to be, and made the free exercise of honest preference among the voters difficult and often impossible. The scramble between factions in the party in possession became as intense as between opposing parties. In the custom house in New York, five collectors of the same party made 1,878 removals in a period of 1,565 business days and the service grew steadily worse. In 1881, Guiteau, an office-seeker from New York, where a bitter factional fight had long been raging, half-crazed with disappointed greed, assassinated President Garfield, to whom charged his failure.

The Merit System. — This proved the turning point. At the next session of Congress bills were introduced for the establishment of the merit system and a law was passed in January 1883. It was entitled “An Act to Regulate and Improve the Civil Service of the United States.” The object of the law was to secure appointment and promotion in the service for fitness. For this purpose appointments were to be made from those graded highest as the results of open competitive examinations, the appointments being made final only after a period of probation or trial. This system was to be extended throughout the service as fast and as far as the President should direct. When any part of the service was to be brought under the system, it was to be arranged in classes by order of the President; hence the term “classified service” means, under the law, the part of the service in which the merit system is applied. Within the classified service, the examinations for appointment and for promotion are chiefly competitive; that is to say a list, called an “eligible list,” is made of all applicants passing a fixed grade, in the order of their standing, and a selection is made by the appointing officer from the three highest on this list. This selection is for the period of probation or trial, six months, at the end of which term, if his conduct and capacity are satisfactory, the probationer is absolutely appointed; if not, he is discharged. Non-competitive examinations are held according to the rules laid down by the President. In these all applicants passing a fixed grade are eligible to appointment without regard to their relative standing. The rule as to probation is the same as in the other cases. The law requires that all “examinations shall be practical in their character and as 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 to which they seek to be appointed.” Close attention is paid to this requirement. In the first place, weight is given to the experience of the candidates in the kind of work they seek, when such experience can definitely be known. Then each class is tested as to knowledge and skill particularly needed. For clerks and accountants, weight is given to accuracy and quickness in figures, to clearness and rapidity in writing and to familiarity with the principles and methods of bookkeeping. Examinations are generally for entrance to the lower grades of the service and actual excellence in the performance of work counts in promotion. For places requiring special knowledge, trained examiners are employed. For instance, the examiners who set the questions and rated the answers in the case of the supervising architect were prominent architects from various parts of the country. They were able, from the records of the candidates, to test not only professional knowledge, but business capacity. In all cases the examiners are selected from those who are well informed as to the work to be done. The application of this law is to be carried out and watched by a commission, known as the United States Civil Service Commission, made up of three members, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate. This commission aids the President in the formation of the rules under the law, and, with the aid of examiners, sets and conducts the examinations. All appointing officers are required to report to it all changes in the classified service, of which the commission keeps a full record, as well as of its own examinations and other proceedings. All officers of the service are required to aid in the performance of the duties of the commission.

One of the worst evils of the spoils system was the fact that public employees were made to pay a large fraction of their salaries to party funds, and another was that these employees were forced to work for the party in power in order to keep their places. Both these practices are now forbidden by law in the service of the United States. No one in the service is allowed to use his official authority or influence to coerce the political action of others. All persons in the service are forbidden to ask or receive political contributions from others in the service. Such contributions cannot be solicited in any place or building used by the government. By the rules which have the force of law, no question can be asked of candidates for appointment as to their political or religious opinions; no disclosures of such opinions can be considered; no change of rank or pay can be made because of such opinions. Under the spoils system, the office-holder got his place from his party and was taxed heavily by his party managers. The law intends to put a stop to that; it holds the officer bound only to earn his pay by honest work, and free to spend it as he chooses. The law further holds him without fear of harm or hope of aid from outside, to do his duty to his employers, the whole people of the United States. It aims to put the people and those who work for them on the same footing that is maintained in honorable private business between employers and employed.

The merit system has been greatly extended since the passage of the law. Under President Arthur, who signed the law in 1883, some 16,000 places were brought within its provisions. The number is now over 120,000. While this advance has been made there have been more frequent changes of party in the government of the country than in any like period in our history. Each succeeding President, until the present, has, in the discretion which the law confides to the President only, added to the number of places removed from the spoils system. President McKinley withdrew a considerable number of places from the merit system for reasons urged upon him by the heads of some departments. The effect has been unfortunate. President Taft, near the close of his administration, transferred all the fourth class postmasterships to the classified service; President Roosevelt increased the number by including the deputy collectors of customs and internal revenue. The merit system has been extended to the service in the Philippine Islands in a way that promises to make the work of governing there clean, efficient and fair to a degree that could hardly have been looked for. In this region the bond of trusteeship rests upon our government with a peculiar and solemn obligation. The United States have taken control of the affairs of the people of these islands as the result of a war with Spain, without the assent of the people in the first instance, and against resistance by a portion of them which was overcome by arms. It would be a sore disgrace if their affairs were not managed honestly and purely and for the interest of the governed. The merit system on the lines of the Civil Service Law has been established there, under the general guidance of an experienced and skilled examiner from Washington. As many natives as practicable are being employed. It is still too early to judge of the final outcome, but the beginning is promising.

The chief aim of the merit system is, on the one hand, to get the best service for the government — that is, for the people — and, on the other hand, to remove from the party contests of the country the corrupting influence of the vast number of business places offered as spoils to the victors. The methods of competition and probation are not perfect, and, like all other human methods, are liable to mismanagement. But they are the best that have ever been tried, and they are very effective. The test of competitive examination is shown to be thorough and practical by the fact that only a very small number of those who pass that test are dropped after probation or trial. Another proof is the much larger amount of work done by persons so selected. During 10 years before the adoption of the merit system in the departments at Washington the number of clerks increased from 3,300 to 5,523, or more than two-thirds. In the 13 years after the system was adopted the number actually fell off 211, or 3 per cent, while the work of the departments had largely increased. Another proof of the efficiency of the system is the small number of changes that take place in it compared with those that take place in the branches of the service where the system is not yet applied.

The entrance examinations are held in all parts of the land, and men and women are selected for the departments at Washington with no regard whatever for their party views or the influence of politicians. This has been of great effect in laying to rest the passions bred by the Civil War, and giving to the dwellers in the South a sense of their common rights and duties as citizens of the nation. It is a great and lasting gain.

In 1884, laws for the introduction of the merit system were enacted in New York and Massachusetts, and later laws authorize the system in the service of cities in Wisconsin and Illinois. In Massachusetts and in New York the system has made much progress and the results have been good in proportion as the system has been extended and honestly and faithfully applied. But the evils of the spoils system still prevail almost without check in the service of the cities and the States throughout the country. The enormous number of places involved are still almost wholly the prizes of party contests. The place-holders, many times more numerous than the present army of the United States, are in greater part enlisted for party rather than for public service. Efficiency, industry and economy in the public work are hard to secure. The suppression of vice and the decent administration of the affairs of cities and States are made more difficult.

Clearly it is best that the merit system should be applied to all that portion of the civil service in which the duties are of a business nature and in which the office-holders are not called on to fix the policy of the government. There is no Democratic or Republican or Populist way of being honest and industrious and intelligent which all Americans may not use. To these qualities in their service the people have a right, and no party can claim a monopoly of them. Much remains to be done to complete the work so well begun. The men in all parties who look on public employment, not as a trust, but as the spoils of party victory, resist all advance and seek to undo what has been done. They cannot succeed if the true nature of the merit system is understood, its honesty and fairness, its high utility and its fidelity to the fundamental principle of the free institutions of the American republic. From 1915 on the Civil Service Reform League conducted a vigorous agitation to bring all classes of postmasters into the classified service, all diplomatic secretaries and consular officers to be transferred to the classified service. The League also co-operated by request to ensure efficiency in war service. Consult Roosevelt, Theodore, ‘American Ideals’ (New York 1900); Fish, C. R., ‘The Civil Service and the Patronage’ (New York 1905). See Executive.