“At present there is no organization… no system save that of chaos; no test of integrity save that of partisanship; no test of qualification save that of intrigue.”
That’s not a quote about the Trump presidency, but good-government reformer Julius Bing railing in 1868 against a system of chaos and intimidation in government service—exactly the system President Trump seems to want to return us to.
Bing and others during the Gilded Age advocated for the professionalization and depoliticization of the federal workforce, a system that was finally achieved and has served our nation well since the 1880s. Their fight matters today, when Trump’s plans for disruption appear to include a wholesale undoing of civil service itself.
Already, he has put his foot firmly on the neck of the over 2 million federal employees, freezing hiring, pressing them to distort facts to back his unfounded claims and warning them not to speak out publicly against his administration’s goals. This is week three, with much more to come.
As Trump-backer Newt Gingrich told The New Yorker back in September, “You have to end the civil-service permanent employment” and let the president “fire corrupt, incompetent, and dishonest workers.” And Trump himself has pledged to “make the VA great again by firing the corrupt and incompetent VA executives,” by using “the powers of the presidency to remove and discipline the federal employees and managers who have violated the public’s trust.”
But a system in which the president fires whatever civil servants he will is no system at all.
The civil service seems benign at best, boringly so. There are few advocates presently speaking up for it. But if we wait too long to pay attention or speak out, it might be too late. We depend on a competent, ethical civil service for the stable functioning of our government and economy—the very foundation of American greatness. We have grown used to official and reliable statistics, forecasts, reports, and investigations to keep us informed, stable, and safe. But this stability and professionalism could be undone by the new administration, maybe even with the stroke of the pen on a late Friday afternoon through executive order.
Our civil service system was created with the passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883, after years of efforts, as a widespread effort to cure the ills of patronage and corruption which to that point had defined government employment. It aimed to professionalize and depoliticize government employees, allowing civil servants to serve the people and the country rather than petty politicians or ideologies.
Before 1883, presidents and political parties treated government jobs as part of the spoils system. Party loyalists were regularly rewarded with jobs, promotions, raises, or even paid leave for work on political campaigns. Political machines depended on the system, for it provided an army of hacks and ward bosses to run the machine. Parties assessed workers’ pay, as much as 7 percent, to bankroll their efforts and fund their campaigns. Each administration would reward their party faithful with employment opportunities, the spoils of victory. As administrations came and went, so did almost all of the federal workforce. This led to constant flux in employment and workers who owed their jobs solely to political connections. Their morale was low and they lived in constant fear and anxiety of losing their jobs. Besides the obvious corruption, it created a truly, massively inefficient workforce incapable of the important work required of the federal government, with few workers actually qualified for their jobs.
In the Gilded Age, a time of enormous economic disruption, great social ills, and quickened industrialization, the U.S. lacked the capacity of a modern government because it lacked a skilled and professional government workforce. This is precisely at a time when businesses recognized the need for internal planning and forecasting that depended on the ability of the government to prepare and present national data to aid their planning. The federal government proved virtually unable to present more than the basics. Reformers argued that corruption and the political carnival that was government service had no place in a maturing nation. Our economy and democracy demanded a professional government service.
Still, it took a generation before the Pendleton Act finally passed. James Parton, a 19th century biographer of President Andrew Jackson, explained to a Joint Select Committee of Congress in 1859 how far governmental service had fallen since the founding of the nation: “The Government, formally served by the elite of the nation, is now served to a very considerable extent by its refuse.” Reformers, mostly from the new professional classes believed that an apolitical technocratic class would best serve the nation. It should be noted as well that the same reformers believed they had the skills for the job, so their reform was somewhat self-serving. The Pendleton Act, for the first time, created a category of federal employee, called “classified service,” with jobs that could only be gotten through competitive exams intended to create a merit system that relied on knowledge, skills and performance alone.
To get the act passed, a compromise was established to gradually move jobs into classified service. So, for instance, in 1883 only 11 percent of federal jobs were classified. By 1900, it was 43 percent. Those in classified service could not be directly coerced and were basically immune to political intimidation. Their loyalty was no longer to party, but to the American people. It lead quickly to the professionalized federal workforce based on skill and expertise, which allowed the government to develop more sophisticated capacities to better serve the growing nation.
We have come to depend on our federal workforce to be consistent, honorable, apolitical and professional. Whether it is the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Commerce or Agricultural Departments, or the Department of Energy, the work of these civil servants has an enormous impact on the country, for instance on whether companies choose to invest in new technologies or production facilities, borrow or move operations offshore, expand or hire more workers. Our nation depends on someone collecting the big data we hear so much about.
Civil service might not be perfect, but are we really ready for a return to the chaos and ideologically driven 1870s? I hope not.
Richard Greenwald is a professor of history and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His last book is Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America.