U. S. Senate Speeches and Remarks of Carl Schurz/Civil Service

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Mr. SCHURZ asked, and by unanimous consent obtained, leave to introduce a bill (S. No. 356) to reform the civil service of the United States; which was read twice by its title.

Mr. SCHURZ. Mr. President, I should be glad to have permission to accompany the introduction of this bill with a few remarks in explanation of the ends it is designed to accomplish and of the means by which it is intended to reach them. I deem such explanation proper at this time for the simple reason that the intent and bearing of several provisions of the bill may not appear sufficiently clear at first sight.

The VICE PRESIDENT. What length of time does the Senator from Missouri desire?

Mr. SCHURZ. Only ten minutes.

The VICE PRESIDENT. The Senator from Missouri asks permission to accompany this bill with some explanatory remarks occupying about ten minutes. Is there objection?

Mr. SUMNER. I ask whether we had not better go through with the morning business? I have some resolutions to offer.

Mr. SCHURZ. Inasmuch as it is only my object to have some explanation go before the Senate and before the public together with this bill, I shall be perfectly satisfied if I am allowed to reduce to writing the remarks I desire to make and have leave to publish them in the Globe.

The VICE PRESIDENT. Is there objection to that?

Mr. TRUMBULL. I hope the Senator will have permission to submit to the Senate what he desires to state.

Mr. CONKLING. I hope there will be no objection to that.

Mr. SUMNER. I make no objection.

Mr. CONKLING. If the Senator from Missouri proceeds pending the order for the call of morning business that order remains for completion after the Senator shall have concluded. [“Certainly.”]

The VICE PRESIDENT. The Chair understands that there is no objection to the Senator from Missouri proceeding.

Mr. SCHURZ. Mr. President, I will not take up the time of the Senate by going into a discussion of all the abuses under which the civil service suffers, but briefly enumerate some of the most important which seem to be within the reach of reform, and to which the provisions of my bill apply.

In the first place, appointments to office are mostly made upon the recommendations of politicians of high and low grade. The means by which such recommendations are frequently obtained, and the reasons for which they are given, are so well known, and have but recently been so ably exposed by the distinguished Senator from Illinois, [Mr. Trumbull,] that it is superfluous to enlarge upon them. It is an acknowledged fact that in a very large number of cases the offices are looked upon as berths into which men may be put for their own comfort and that of their protectors, and the best interests of the service are treated as a mere secondary consideration.

Second. The President and the heads of the Executive Departments have in most cases neither time nor opportunity to examine with sufficient care the recommendations submitted to them for the simple reason that immense numbers of such recommendations usually rush down upon them with impetuous and uproarious urgency all at the same time.

Third. This general rush usually occurs just at that period in the official existence of an Administration when the President and the heads of Departments have just entered upon the discharge of duties comparatively new to them; when they have had no time yet to study the exigencies of the service, and are therefore least fitted for the tremendous task of taking to pieces the vast administrative machinery of the Government and of putting it together again out of new material.

Fourth. Instead of stimulating the honest zeal of officers, the present system is rather calculated to demoralize them. The loose moral notions fostered by the spoils system as it exists; the fact of their having been put in office for their and their friends' accommodation, and for other reasons which have nothing to do with the interests of the service; the feeling of insecurity in their tenure; the knowledge that dutiful conduct is not a sufficient protection to them against political and personal combinations; the almost absolute certainty of being removed as soon as the Government changes hands, all these things are apt to discourage the proper ambition of officers, and even to induce them to feather their nests while they have an opportunity to do so.

Fifth. In addition to these demoralizing influences the efficiency of the service is impaired by its lack of stability. Inexperienced men appointed to office will require some time to become perfectly conversant with their official duties; and it very frequently happens that when they have attained a respectable degree of efficiency they are removed to make way for men as inexperienced as they were when they began. A collector of customs under the late Administration made during less than three years while he held office about four hundred changes in two hundred and forty offices, and those, too, involving the most delicate trusts in the customs service.

Sixth. This state of things encourages men of inferior moral and intellectual qualifications to aspire to public station, while it lowers the character of the civil service in such a degree as to deter in many cases men of high self-respect and superior ability from devoting themselves to the service of the Republic in the administrative offices of the Government. The existence of these and other abuses and evils no candid man will deny. The fearful demoralization which the spoils system entails upon our whole political life I will not now dilate upon.

The remedies proposed in my bill are the following: in order to do away with the practice of appointing officers on recommendations so untrustworthy, and not unfrequently so completely worthless, the bill provides for a civil-service board, whose business it will be to examine the qualifications of candidates for office, with a single eye to their fitness for the performance of official duty and the discharge of public trust; and from the number of those whose fitness has been properly ascertained the appointments shall be made.

I recognize the fact that whatever modes of investigating the qualifications of a candidate the civil-service board may adopt the result of such investigation will not be entirely conclusive as to his business ability. It is therefore provided in the bill that every officer shall pass through a year of probation, during which his superiors will have ample time and opportunity to discover whether he possesses those practical faculties and those qualities of character which are necessary to make an officer efficient, but which a mere examination cannot bring to light; and before the expiration of that year of probation the appointing power shall at all times have authority to remove an officer without being questioned about such removal.

We distinguish in the civil service two classes of officers: those who are appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, and those who as inferior officers work under the orders and direction of the former class, and whose appointment is by law vested in the heads of Departments. A bill providing for the examination, appointment, and promotion of officers belonging to the latter class has been introduced in the House of Representatives by the distinguished member from Rhode Island, [Mr. Jenckes.] I suppose every Senator is more or less familiar with it. But that bill, excellent as far as it reaches, is confined in its operation to the clerks of higher and lower order. It touches, therefore, only a part of the evil to be remedied. My bill includes the whole of Mr. Jenckes' scheme, with slight alterations in its provisions and phraseology; but I go one step further, and apply rules of a somewhat similar character to the offices to be filled by presidential appointment.

Applicants for such offices have, according to the plan I submit, also to pass through the ordeal of an examination of their qualifications by the civil-service board. But I am well aware that it would be impracticable to subject candidates for certain offices to an examination in the ordinary meaning of the term. It would, for instance, be unreasonable to order every candidate for a little country post office personally before an examining board. The bill provides, therefore, that the civil-service board may by general rules determine that, in order to ascertain the fitness of candidates for certain offices, mere inquiries concerning the character, antecedents, social standing, and general ability may be substituted for formal examinations. All recommendations will, of course, have to undergo a searching scrutiny on the part of the board.

In order not to encroach upon the prerogative of the President with regard to those appointments, with according to the Constitution and laws are to be made by him, with the consent of the Senate, the bill provides that the civil-service board shall by examination or mere inquiry, or both combined, ascertain what candidates for a certain office are fit for the performance of the duties thereof according to the standard set up by general rules, and the President may then make his selection from the whole number of candidates found fit, or he may send whomsoever he pleases before the civil-service board, and, if that candidate be found to come up to the fixed standard of qualifications, nominate him for the place. The civil-service board will therefore not designate the person to be appointed, thus virtually exercising the appointing power, but it will exclude from the list of candidates those who are unfit for appointment. The Senate will have the reports of the board on all the candidates before them, and thereby be enabled to ascertain whether the best choice has been made by the President.

In order to avoid the difficulties arising from the short and uncertain tenure of office, and from the circumstance that the demand for removals and appointments usually comes immediately after the accession to power of an Administration, and en masse, the bill provides as follows:

All officers, with the exception of the class covered by Mr. Jenckes's bill, who are already in the civil-service when the operations of the civil service board commence, and who, therefore, had been appointed without the careful scrutiny prescribed by the bill, shall hold office for the term of five years from the date of their commissions; but all presidential appointments made afterward in pursuance of the provisions of the bill shall be for the term of eights years. No removals shall take place except for cause duly investigated and tried by the board, with the proviso, however, that any officer now in the service may at any time be ordered before the civil-service board, and if found unfit be dismissed. It is further provided that whenever any vacancy occurs in any office before the expiration of the term the person selected to fill that vacancy shall be appointed, not for the balance of the unexpired term, but for a new and full term of eight years.

The object of these provisions is the following: the term of five years will carry the officers now in the service, unless sooner removed, one year or more beyond the accession to power of the next Administration. The next Administration, assuming that it will consist of a new set of persons, will by that time have acquired sufficient knowledge of the exigencies of the service and experience to guide it in the patter of appointments; or if the personnel of the present Administration be continued for another term, the same consideration will hold good for the future. The term of eight years, for which presidential appointments are to be made under the operation of this bill, will answer a double purpose: first, it will give the country the benefit of the services of officers for a considerable time after their efficiency is matured by experience; and second, it will carry a large number, probably a considerable majority of the officers through the terms of two Administrations, perhaps through a change of the party in power, and soon wean the people of the traditional notion that the civil service of the United States must necessarily be the working machinery of a political party, thus eradicating the spoils system.

The additional provision that vacancies occasioned by death or resignation or removal shall be filled by appointments for full terms and not for the balance of unexpired terms will have this effect: the expiration of terms will not occur en masse at one time or within a very limited period, thus creating an enormous and confusing pressure; but it will in the natural course of things generally be scattered over the period of eight years; thus giving the civil-service board and the appointing power ample time to conduct their investigations and to make their selections deliberately and without being unduly overcrowded. And finally, the provision which permits removals only for sufficient cause, and upon impartial trial, will strengthen the best impulses in the heart of every public officer by assuring him that he can find security of tenure in honest zeal and dutiful conduct, while the official recognition of duties well performed, as provided for in the bill, will stimulate his ambition to base future claims upon past good conduct and to leave an honorable record behind him.

I have now explained those provisions of the bill which in my opinion need elucidation with regard to their purpose and hearing. I invite my fellow-Senators when they read the printed bill to judge its provisions in the light of these explanations. I have confined myself to these plain and dry statements, reserving a full discussion of the subject to the time when the bill will come up for consideration.

The feeling that the civil service of the United States stands in absolute need of a thorough reform is every day growing more universal. I am aware that the problem is extremely difficult of solution. I certainly do not indulge in the presumptuous belief that the scheme embodied in this bill is the best that can be devised or that it contains all that is desirable. There are many Senators around me who are my seniors and superiors in age, ability, public service, and legislative experience. Perhaps they will suggest valuable improvements, and no pride of opinion will prevent me from accepting them. Let this plan be commended to their candid consideration.

I do not know whether a bill like this has in this Congress any flattering chances of success. The obstacles which such a reform will have to encounter and overcome are not unknown to me. In any event, the friends of this reform are resolved to try in good earnest, and we shall ask in time of the Senate a fair hearing, which I have no doubt will be granted with the respect which so important a subject deserves.

I now move that the bill be printed, and referred to the joint select Committee on Retrenchment.

The motion was agreed to.