civil service

Body of government officials employed in civil occupations that are neither political nor judicial. In well-ordered societies, they are usually recruited and promoted on the basis of a merit-and-seniority system, which may include examinations; elsewhere, corruption and patronage are more important factors. They often serve as neutral advisers to elected officials and political appointees. Though not responsible for making policy, they are charged with its execution. The civil service originated in the earliest known Middle Eastern societies; the modern European civil services date to 17th- and 18th-century Prussia and the electors of Brandenburg. In the U.S., senior officials change with each new administration. In Europe, regulations were established in the 19th century to minimize favouritism and to ensure a wide range of knowledge and skills among civil service officers. Seealso Chinese examination system; spoils system.

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The United States Civil Service consists of all appointive positions in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the Government of the United States, except positions in the Uniformed Service. The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (ch. 27, ) of 1883 United States federal law established the United States Civil Service Commission, which placed most federal government employees on the merit system and marked the end of the so-called "spoils system." The act provided for some government jobs to be filled on the basis of competitive exams.

Drafted during the Chester A. Arthur administration, the Pendleton Act served as a response to President James Garfield's assassination by Charles Julius Guiteau. The Act was passed into law on January 16, 1883. The Act was sponsored by Senator George H. Pendleton, Democrat of Ohio, and written by Dorman Bridgeman Eaton, a staunch opponent of the patronage system who was later first chairman of the United States Civil Service Commission. The most famous commissioner was Theodore Roosevelt (1889-96).

The law only applied to federal government jobs: not to the state and local jobs that were the basis for political machines. At first it covered very few jobs, but there was a ratchet provision whereby outgoing presidents could lock in their own appointees by converting their jobs to civil service. After a series of party reversals at the presidential level (1884, 1888, 1892, 1896), the result was that most federal jobs were under civil service. One result was more expertise and less politics. An unintended result was the shift of the parties to reliance on funding from business, since they could no longer depend on patronage hopefuls. The act also prohibits soliciting campaign donations on Federal government property.

Further reading

  • Ari Hoogenboom, Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement, 1865-1883 (1961)
  • Paul P. Van Riper, History of the United States Civil Service (1958).

See also

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