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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Civil Service and Chester Arthur

It can, and will, be argued that the President is to blame for lousy management. I've argued that in the past. Some in the Administration are saying that civil-service rules prevent Obama from firing the midlevel bozos. But what about the higher-ups? Why haven't the Democrats proposed a full-scale review of civil-service laws, which were concocted by President Chester Alan Arthur 130 years ago, when there was only a fraction of the federal workforce that we have now? Such laws certainly hinder effective governance, which the Democrats are supposedly selling. The failure of Democrats to govern well inevitably leads to a conservative reaction. That reaction will dominate our political life to the exclusion of almost everything else between now and 2014, and perhaps beyond.
Klein may be right about mismanagement in the executive branch, but his account of the law is inaccurate.  Congress passed an overhaul of the civil-service law in 1978, so blame for any shortcomings should fall upon that statute.  As for the earlier law, the phrase "concocted by Chester Alan Arthur" is wide of the mark.  Concocted connotes a slapdash effort, when in fact the original law was a carefully-written document that worked well for many years. And although Arthur backed its enactment, he did not write it.

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was named for its primary sponsor, Senator George Pendleton, a Democrat from Ohio. But it was primarily written by a noted attorney and crusader for civil service reform, Dorman Bridgman Eaton (1823-1899).

During the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, Eaton had been the head of the first civil service commission, which was intended to curb abuses and regulate the civil service. But the commission was not very effective, and when Congress cut off its funds in 1875, after only a few years of operation, its purpose was thwarted.

In the 1870s Eaton had visited Britain and studied its civil service system. He returned to America and published a book on the British system which advocated that Americans adopt many of the same practices.

Under Eaton’s proposals, the civil service would award jobs based on merit examinations, and a civil service commission would oversee the process.

The new law, essentially as drafted by Eaton, passed the Congress and was signed by President Chester Alan Arthur on January 16, 1883. Arthur appointed Eaton as the first chairman of the three-man Civil Service Commission, and he served in that post until he resigned in 1886.

The role played by Dorman Bridgman Eaton was highly unusual: he was an advocate for civil service reform, drafted the law pertaining to it, and was ultimately given the job of seeing to its enforcement.