In American history class, I learned about the “spoils system.” In the early days, when a president from a political party different than his predecessor’s took office, he fired everybody from the previous administration and replaced them with his own people. “To the victor belong the spoils,” and the prizes. So Mr. X, who lined up the votes in Kentucky, sailed to France as a diplomat. Mr. Y, for his crucial help in swinging New York their way, scored the U.S. Customs office. That’s the way things were done, and it you didn’t like it, you’d better win next time so you could put your own guys in.
The spoils system blew wide open in 1881, with a bullet fired by Charles Guiteau into the back of President James A. Garfield. Guiteau, often described as a “disappointed office seeker,” was actually a nut who had been passed over several times for a diplomatic post. He shot Garfield to elevate Vice President Chester A. Arthur, a supporter of political patronage. But Arthur did an about-face and championed the Pendelton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883, which based appointments on merit and required applicants to take a test. Only about 10 percent of federal employees were covered at first, but a provision in the law allowed the president to designate more jobs as “civil service.” After the electoral revolving door had placed alternate Republicans and Democrats in the executive seat, the civil service was a wash of party loyalties.
But during the Depression, federal projects like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) became a nest of Democratic-appointed administrators who used their office for political advantage. The Hatch Act of 1939 bars executive-department employees from engaging in partisan political activity while they hold their jobs—except for the president and vice president, and a few other designated office-holders.
That’s the history lesson, but what about today? As Democrats become more affiliated with Big Government, more of Big Government consists of Democrats. We saw that in the Internal Revenue Service blowup, in which far too many federal employees seem willing to subvert dissenting views. And even though he signed the latest Hatch Act amendment last year, President Barack Obama has no obvious scruples about enlisting the bureaucracy in his partisan cause. The screaming, all-caps text of a memo sent to thousands of employees and military families through the Department of Defense on Oct. 12 casts the recent government shutdown as an “us vs. them” conflict. Obama himself sent the same communication to the Department of Labor in letter form. There’s no reason for such communication except to recruit supporters. He can truthfully say that the law doesn’t apply to him as president, but it violates the spirit if not the letter.
David French saw the barricades around national monuments as symbols of another agency, the National Park Service, that “asked not what it could do for its country but what it could do to preserve its own power and privilege.” The spoils system may be gone, but the civil service is looking pretty spoiled.