History of the Career Civil Service

History of the Career Civil ServiceThe current Civil Service system goes back to the Pendleton Civil Service Act of 1883. Back then, the size of the federal government was growing rapidly because of, among other things, the post–Civil War economic and demographic expansion and such legislation as the Morrill Land Grant Act and the founding of the agriculture department. Prior to this period, government employment was dominated by the spoils system (as in to the victor belong the spoils). When a new administration came to power, especially if it was of a different party from the incumbent president’s, a wholesale replacement of the executive department staff took place at all levels. The new staff had to learn their jobs, sometimes from scratch, while years of experience in managing complex agency functions walked out the door.

A career civil service was first enacted in 1871 and over the next twelve years gradually strengthened. The purpose of the 1883 Pendleton Act was to establish a career civil service independent of the political process to perform most of the day-to-day functions of the federal government. Certain high-level positions were excluded from this law and still serve at the pleasure of the president. Mechanisms were put in place to make it very difficult to fire career civil servants for fear that if they could be discharged, they might become vulnerable to the political process. This has become less of an issue as the career civil service has expanded into the millions.

In order to further ensure the separation of the career civil service from the political process, the 1939 Hatch Act was enacted. This forbade career civil servants from participating in certain political activities. The scope of these activities has changed several times over the last seventy-five-plus years with Democrats, in general, favoring allowing more political participation and Republicans less.

During the Kennedy administration, career civil servants were given the right to unionize. For a variety of reasons, this was a very bad idea. No group should be allowed to collectively bargain with employers in the same employment category. Nor should any civil servant be allowed to strike the government because a strike can have an extremely disruptive effect on necessary public services. The breaking of the air traffic controllers’ strike by President Reagan by firing them all was an unusual occurrence and is unlikely to happen again.


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