Civil Service vs. The Spoils System

US Capitol w/ Flag

This is a topic I’ve long struggled with: are we better off with modern civil service protections, or would we be better off under the Spoils System? Lately, I’ve tended to agree with Glenn Reynolds “that the entire Civil Service system should be scrapped.” I’m think the civil service tends to perpetuate the opinions and prerogatives of a small handful of elites, and is fundamentally anti-democratic. Not that I always believe “anti-democratic” is a bad word, but it has to serve a purpose in the framework of individual liberty and protecting political minorities from the worst excesses of democratic government. I think civil service protections fail this test. I’d like to highlight his current top comment in Glenn Reynolds post, which I think offers food for thought. His commenter supports a return of the Spoils System:

A real spoils system would have several advantages:

  1. You could get rid of them all by electing a new party to office.
  2. Bureaucrats might be restrained by knowing that they will soon be turfed out into the private sector so they will want rules that they could live under after the next election.
  3. They might also be restrained by the knowledge that if their behavior got to obnoxious they would cost their party votes and potentially end their employment.
  4. Everyone would realize they are partisan hacks and thus not excuse their overreach behind some sort of non-partisan good government BS.

Lately, I’ve been thinking the same thing. The downside is there are people in the civil service right now who are actually knowledgable, do a reasonable job, and not political hacks. But there are far too many political hacks hiding behind civil service protections. These days I tend to agree we’d be better off with the spoils system, provided it was operated with the knowledge and understanding that there’s a lot the government does that requires people who are competent and willing to work hard. I’d hate to see, for example, document preservation exports cut loose at the National Archives because they were hired by the “wrong party.” But I’m willing to concede that civil servants who live by the sword (politics) can also die by it. That’s probably how it should be. An awful lot of civil service protections were generally meant to promote big, permanent government and rule by unaccountable “experts.”

18 thoughts on “Civil Service vs. The Spoils System”

  1. I have no objection to replacing the existing civil service structure with a spoils system, but whether it is or not I think it reasonable to institute term limits on not just elected officials but government employees.

    If, when applying for a government job (and note, that’s “government job,” not “federal government job”) the applicant knew: 1) employment was limited to a maximum of, say, 10-15 years, with no opportunity to work anywhere in government after that; 2) all retirement benfits were employee-funded (401(k), IRA, etc.); 3) membership in a union as a government employee was banned, as is any form of collective bargaining; people might learn to treat government employment as they do private sector employment, with the employment position belonging to the employer rather than the employee.

    Military service would be exempt from these restrictions.

    We would, as you point out, periodically lose some expertise. I question, however, if we’re not better off without some of that “expertise.” For example, were there no FEMA would states, and individuals, take more seriously disaster preparation, recovery and business continuity? I don’t doubt there is some housing and mortgage finance expertise at HUD, Freddie Mac and Sallie Mae, but is that “expertise” a benefit or disadvantage? A claim can be made that law enforcement should be exempted, but given what law enforcement has degenerated into, would not a shorter employment term benefit citizens there also?

    1. Other than the restrictions on length of service, I could go with your suggestions. Although, with the other modifications, I see no reason why we couldn’t maintain the civil service situation as opposed to going back to the really inefficient and corruption-ridden spoils system.

      Some jobs really do require a long period of experience, just as in the military, which is why, no matter how bright you are, you aren’t making Command Sergeant Major or General in 10-15 years. Same thing for many senior civil service positions. So, I have no problem with civil service personnel being allowed to stay in until they are of retirement age.

      But government unions are an abomination, and guaranteed benefit pensions for anyone outside the military (and possibly fire & LE, depending on salary scale – the key is that these jobs are very dangerous, the kinds where you can be ordered into life threatening situations, AND after 20 years doing them, you’re almost guaranteed to have damaged your body) are ridiculous.

      1. although i wonder if every military/fire/LE job is actually so dangerous as to rate this exemption. it’s not like they don’t have a bureaucracy that can be railed against.

    2. 3) membership in a union as a government employee was banned” would surely fall afoul of the First Amendment. But wouldn’t the ban on collective bargaining (along with the ability to fire-at-will for work stoppages and other union-esque activities) be enough?

  2. I could get on board with something like this if we phased it in for say, SES level employees and above.

  3. We don’t need to replace the existing system, because the existing system has a model for a spoils system already: this is nothing more than an increase in the number of political appointees in the labor force. It has been happening and is accelerating.

    I worked with a GSA exec who disappeared when Team Democrat won the administration. He was competent, but knew he was on borrowed time because even a new Republican could have replaced him, at will.

    That’s the other advantage of political appointments: they are “at will” job titles without the massive civil service job protections others get.

    The gent I worked with was asking me to help him build some technical/security things at GSA that had been missing for years. The other advantage to his appointment was that he wanted to get the work done fast, because the next guy was not guaranteed to continue the efforts. Of course, that highlights the downside: he was not able to get the initiative done in time (was slowed by outside issues), and it never got picked up by the next boss.

    I never understood why his job was an appointee position, other than “spoils”. It was largely a mid-high position you’d normally see staffed with a junior SES person. Mostly technical and little political or strategy involved; it was literally a “get the job done” type of post.

    He succeeded in lots of other initiatives, and would have probably been a strong leader going forward. But he was tossed with the change of the guard.

    Not against your proposal. Just offering a short story about how a lot of what Glenn and you discuss is already occurring, and how we don’t need new laws. We just keep expanding the political appointee system (there are tens of thousands already).

  4. Working with DoD I see it all the time. New SecDef comes in, lays down directives people don’t like, so the civil servants do everything they can to stall and delay, because they know if they can drag it out long enough, there will be a new POTUS/SecDef who will likely undo a lot of what his predecessor did.

    It’s an attitude of “He’ll be gone in a few years, I’m here till I retire so I’m not gonna listen.”

    1. Along similar lines, many DOD agencies have a military director. For some reason, though, they follow the military tradition of rotaitng the “CO” after 3 years, so a new director comes in, pushes his/her new “vision” foor the agency, which naturally never actually gets implemented due to foot dragging and/or diversion by the “middle management” layer, somewhere between the appointees and the GS rank and file.

  5. Once you get above GS-13 or an SES you are, as they say in the LEAN concept, “non-value added”.

  6. My biggest problem with MOST Civil Service workers (Note, I am also a new civil service worker) is that there is no system of meritocracy. People seems to become complacent, and as long as they stay in their position, they get raises and other union supported benefits, while the new guys are shit for advancement out of luck for what seems to be about five years (in my locality) due to people unable to be fired as long as they exist.* I work 60% better/faster than some of these bodies that I have to surround myself with, but their seniority is all that matters.

    Sorry for the rant.

    (* = exaggeration, but you get what I mean)

  7. Part of the problem would be to designate what positions should be included/excluded in the spoils category.

    Example from CA:

    Had a friend who got hired in the mid/late 90’s by CalTrans to build a database for keeping track of all road repairs, from potholes on up. About 18-24 month contract, IIRC. His job was to build a comprehensive Oracle based DBA, get it running and debugged, train people to use it, and then go find another contract. He averaged around $100/hr in his work.
    About a year into the job, he got to work one day to discover the doors locked, and a posted note to go away and not return. The reason was a change in regimes due to an election, and his position/dept? was considered a political football. So, the state threw away all the money spent on computers, software, labor, and time, to start fresh. On top of this, I got the impression that people in his area of expertise were not common.

    (I was surprised to find that CA had no records on road repairs, and didn’t know what they were currently doing, or needed to do in the future. Mind bogglingly inefficient and costly. And so typical.)

  8. The problem is less about the details of how federal employees are hired and fired and much more about their powers. Our modern administrative regulatory state has created an unelected and unaccountable fourth branch of government that wields vast power over the lives of every citizen. It is neither necessary, proper or constitutional.

    See Columbia Law School professor Philip Hamburger’s Is Administrative Law Unlawful?

    From a review by The Wall Street Journal:

    Aggressive assertions of executive power are controversial. But are they unconstitutional? Without hesitation, Columbia Law Professor Philip Hamburger would answer “yes.” In “Is Administrative Law Unlawful?,” Mr. Hamburger looks beyond the usual milestones of American regulatory history—the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, Roosevelt’s New Deal—to trace the origins and logic of dividing the powers of government and, by so doing, limiting the executive’s reach…

    History sets the stage for the basic separation of legislative, judicial and executive branches. Of these three, according to Mr. Hamburger, the last was always least in terms of lawmaking: While the legislature could bind subjects through its bills, and judges could bind subjects through their decisions, the executive itself “could not bind, but at most could impose force, whether by bringing matters to the courts or, ultimately, by physically carrying out their binding acts.”

    Mr. Hamburger sees our Founding Fathers as codifying that arrangement in our own Constitution. But he argues that the separation of powers broke down in the 20th century thanks to progressives, such as Woodrow Wilson, who were deeply influenced by German intellectual proponents of administrative power. These progressives believed that expert “commissions” would improve society far faster and better than a government slowed by individual rights and the separation of powers. “German ideas seemed to solve American problems,” Mr. Hamburger writes. Progressives began to move against trusts and monopolies “without worrying too much about their implications for liberty.” This culminated in FDR’s New Deal, which propagated an alphabet soup of federal agencies consolidating legislative, judicial and executive power into a new, unchecked branch of government…

  9. I could see this for some positions, but for a lot of others, it just sounds unnecessarily inefficient. What value is there in turning over all the National Park Rangers, or making them reapply every four or eight years? Or all the mail carriers? Most would be rehired anyway because there’s no way you’d find a whole new workforce all at once and the administrative headache of processing all those applications simultaneously would be gigantic.

  10. Turnover will increase corruption, not decrease it. Like the parable about a traveler seeing a sick many covered in mosquitoes, and the traveller offered to brush them off. “No!” said the sick man. “These mosquitoes have drunk my blood and are full. If you brush them away, the next batch will surely kill me.”

    Remember when the Clintons left the White House – vandalism, graffiti, stolen furniture. In a spoils system, the incentive at turnover will be to take whatever isn’t nailed down, and to sell the rest. Regulated industry will be whipsawed.

    Is this car design safe? Yes, but only for the next 4 years; when we get power again we’re throwing you all in jail over that unsafe design.

    4 years you can import guns, 4 years when having imported a gun 4 years ago is a capital offense.

    Look at states where judges run for office and have to raise cash. No justice for the poor. That’s what a spoils system will do to the US, without radical prior reform.

    We need moral and rational people in the civil service. Without morality and rationality, nothing can fix the problems.

    1. I think part of your concern is also why it’s bad to have agencies with the ability to create regulations that have the force of law.

      But then, if we got rid of those agencies (and their unconstitutional power to create law, independent of Congress and the courts), we wouldn’t need a spoils system.

      I, for one, would be partial to creating a system where any government servant could be recalled, by the constituency that the person serves, and that the recall process should be relatively easy….

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