After the outrageous behavior we’ve seen recently from the federal bureaucracy, members of which theoretically work for us but don’t seem to like us very much, a friend of mine suggested the unthinkable: bring back the spoils system. Bear with me.
The spoils system, as you recall, is the custom of winning political parties doling out jobs and offices to its supporters. Andrew Jackson, sometimes seen as a proto-Trump, was the first president to make real use of the spoils system.
Delicate souls were offended immediately, from the very moment an unruly mob of job seekers turned Jackson’s first inauguration into mayhem. If you look up “spoils system” in Wikipedia, you’ll find a Thomas Nast cartoon of Jackson mounted on a pig. “To the victor belong the spoils,” says the inscription.
That is the way the spoils system was, not without some justice, viewed, and indeed the scramble for office must have been unedifying at times.
Well-intended souls demanded that the civil service be reformed. The Pendleton Act was enacted in 1883. It made civil service jobs dependent on examinations and removed much of the blatant political element.
The Pendleton Act sounded like a peachy keen idea, but it ultimately led to the vast permanent federal bureaucracy we have today.
Just as a thought experiment, read James Burnham, one of the foremost thinkers on government and the managerial state, who wrote this of the emerging bureaucracy in Congress and the American Tradition:
In theory the permanent civil servants are only technicians, carrying out the President’s will in accord with the laws enacted by Congress. They are theoretically distinguished by the protected, permanent and formalized status of their jobs from those who have a voice in policy.
The policy posts remain under a spoils system, filled not by civil service examination but by specific presidential appointment (confirmed by the Senate), and exposed to instant dismissal, with or without stated cause. Because of this merely temporary service and their immediate, continuous dependence on the presidential will, the “policy echelon,” headed by Cabinet members, usually functions in fact as the mere “arm” of the executive that it is supposed to be in theory.
But, generally speaking, the huge mass of the permanent bureaucracy is not temporary, and not dependent in any direct, continuous way on the executive will, nor in practice, is it really possible to preserve the distinction between “policy-making” and “non-policy-making” posts.
Burnham’s prophetic book came out in 1959. He’d never met Lois Lerner, the former IRS official who was involved in the targeting of conservative, tea party groups, or the EPA officials who, in effect, make the law by interpreting regulations Congress leaves to their discretion. But he anticipated them.
No, we’re not going to abolish the federal bureaucracy and return to a spoils system.
But Burnham can help us see how we lost control of the bureaucracy–and how this was the result of good intentions.