To The Victor Goes The Spoils?

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George Washington’s Meritocracy

President George Washington was a ‘self-made man.’ Washington’s wealth came from shrewd investments in real estate and bonds. His leadership abilities during the Revolutionary War led to his popularity and political career. As President, Washington appointed members of his administration based on merit, not favoritism, patronage, or nepotism. The new United States operated as a meritocracy until the presidency of populist Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson’s Spoils System

Jackson was elected in 1828. Rather than hire executive branch employees on merit, he rewarded his friends and partisan supporters with government jobs. The term ‘Spoils System’ comes from the old phrase ‘To the victor goes the spoils’. Government operations can be bureaucratic nightmares even under the best conditions. Bureaucracies that are staffed with biased political loyalists are even more dysfunctional.

Chester Arthur’s Civil Service

Chester Arthur was associated with Roscoe Conkling’s New York patronage ‘machine.’ Even as Vice President, Arthur sided with Conkling against President Garfield. Garfield’s assassination by an angry, disappointed job seeker changed Arthur into a reformer. In 1883, Arthur signed into law the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which ended the ‘spoils system’. The Pendleton Act restricted presidents from firing holdover executive branch employees at will so that partisan loyalists could replace them. The Civil Service Act established a bipartisan Commission, forbade forced employee political contributions, and created a hiring system that included competitive written examinations for some government positions. The act protected employees against being removed from office for political reasons.

Donald Trump’s Deep State

In the 1968 presidential election, segregationist George Wallace railed against “pointy-headed bureaucrats” and promised to “… throw all of their briefcases into the Potomac River…”. In 2016, candidate Donald Trump echoed Wallace’s sentiments when he pledged to eliminate the bureaucratic ‘deep state.’ Trump’s plan to ‘drain the swamp’ came in the form of a 2020 executive order to move federal workers from the ‘General Schedule,’ which is the government’s primary federal pay scale, to the newly created ‘Schedule F,’ under which civil service regulations would not apply. Schedule F would allow the administration to remove current employees from the federal government and replace them with loyal partisans. Schedule F would enable a new spoils system.
Trump could not move anyone to Schedule F before the end of his administration in January of 2021.

President Biden rescinded Schedule F in his first days in office.

Ex-president Trump has made it clear that if he is re-elected, he will use government resources to attack his political enemies, protect himself, and bypass Congress to implement his policy decisions. Trump is not the only Republican candidate aiming at Civil Service. Vivek Ramaswamy has said on Twitter/X, “On Day 1, *instantly* fire 50% of federal bureaucrats. Here’s how: you’re fired if your SSN ends in an odd number.”

There are some 2.9 million positions in the federal government. Civil service can serve as a check on the abuse of power by an authoritarian executive. Will the United States government hire employees through an independent merit-based Civil Service, or will we return to hiring partisan hacks through a Spoils System?












Thanks and a tip of the hat to Currier & Ives, Public domain, via Wikimedia Com

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