What Is the Pendleton Act?

The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, or the Pendleton Act, states that U.S. Government employees should be hired on merit and not political reasons. It was passed in 1883 after President James Garfield was assassinated by a disgruntled job seeker.

Before the Pendleton Act, which did not apply to state and local governments, was passed, government employees were often chosen based on ties to politicians or their political affiliation. The act changed this system and replaced it with a system of competitive exams. The act also made it illegal for government employees to have their employment terminated or receive a demotion for political reasons. The United States Civil Service Commission was created to help enforce the new merit system.

George Washington made the most of his appointments for the government based on merit. By the time Andrew Jackson was elected in 1828, however, many government positions were being filled by friends and political supporters of the president. In the years after Jackson left office, the system's flaws and abuses became an issue due to a substantial increase in government jobs and the skills needed to perform more specialized work.

Today, the Pendleton Act applies to around 90 percent of the 2.7 million employees of the federal government.