This past Monday, in an act of principle and courage, the Republican head of a key presidential advisory council resigned in protest over President Donald Trump’s latest executive order. The order, issued last week, aims to undo 140 years of hard-won American experience in good government. Should Trump get a second term, he’s got a roadmap for replacing the civil service with a spoils system that Boss Tweed would have admired.
Why the stir over an executive order eliminating job protection for government employees in “policy-advocating” positions? In resigning, Ronald Sanders, the chief of the Federal Salary Council and a former high-ranking U.S. intelligence official, called the executive order “nothing more than a smokescreen for what is clearly an attempt to require the political loyalty of those who advise the President.” Similarly, a policy counsel for one of the unions representing federal employees described the executive order as an attempt “to hire cronies and fire enemies. It is really a 19th-century concept.”
Our president may have moved to Florida, but his instincts seem rooted in the distant days of New York’s corrupt Tammany Hall machine.
Recall that at our founding, the federal government was small. In George Washington’s day there were only four cabinet departments (State, Treasury, War, and Justice) and few federal employees. But as administrative bodies expanded, presidents found the prospect of filling their ranks with allies and cronies irresistible. The post office placed political hacks in every village and town, while the customs service rewarded each administration’s friends with jobs in many major cities.
As the federal workforce grew, so did the calls for a civil service system like those in England, France, and Germany, requiring employees to be qualified for their posts and preventing wholesale turnover every new administration.
The idea that “victors” deserved the “spoils” was literally shot down on July 2, 1881, when President James Garfield, just four months after his inauguration, was mortally wounded in a Washington train station by a young lawyer, a loyal Republican who believed he had been unfairly denied a patronage job.
Garfield’s death moved Congress to pass the Pendleton Act, which stipulated that certain federal jobs should be based on merit—via “open, competitive examinations for testing the fitness of applicants for the public service” and rules against requiring civil servants “to contribute to any political fund, or to render any political service.” Under the act, civil servants could not be fired or demoted for political reasons. The act also barred soliciting campaign donations on federal government property.
Over the next half century, new cabinet departments—commerce and labor—were created and existing departments expanded with the adoption of the federal income tax, farmers’ assistance, and federal antitrust laws. Underlying these changes was a growing sense that important federal functions—managing federal resources, monitoring the national economy, protecting public health and safety—required expertise. Nonpartisan professionals gradually replaced party functionaries.
Today, apart from several thousand political appointees who are exempt from civil service requirements, federal jobs are virtually all merit-based hires with protections from political retaliation. The FDA official who resists releasing a COVID vaccine before compliance with safety standards cannot be fired. Neither can the forest service scientist who warns against extinctions as a consequence of a change in water or forest management practices. Nor the defense department arms-policy manager who recommends suspending jet sales to Saudi Arabia following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
President Trump’s new executive order jeopardizes this system. Its aim, says University of Texas political scientist Donald Kettl, is “to undo what the Pendleton Act and subsequent civil service laws tried to accomplish, which was to create a career civil service with expertise that is both accountable to elected officials but also a repository of expertise in government.” Press accounts speculate that the president intends to use the order to target federal employees he considers part of the “deep state.” That label appears to cover government professionals who take their constitutional oaths seriously, and who value the rules and norms governing our Republic through changing administrations.
Combine the executive order with the Trump White House’s recently intensified “loyalty tests” for political appointees and you have a recipe for a government of the obsequious, by the obsequious, and for the obsequious, with diminishing space for competence.
As we near the climax of an election year, an executive order that alters the functioning of the civil service hardly competes with COVID-19, health care, or the economy in voters’ minds. But each of those issues will be handled better by a competently staffed executive branch. So, keeping in mind George Santayana’s famous warning—that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”—the question arises: Will we remember the past, and the history of corruption and cronyism in government, or condemn ourselves to repeat it?