May 1–7, 2022, is Public Service Recognition Week, which honors the individuals who serve our nation as federal, state, county, and local government employees. Today’s Facial Hair Friday looks at the man who sponsored legislation establishing a merit-based system for hiring federal employees: Senator George Hunt Pendleton.
Although President George Washington based most of his federal appointments on merit, that wasn’t always the case with his successors. By the time of Andrew Jackson’s Presidency in 1828, the “spoils” system, otherwise known as political patronage whereby government officials rewarded their political cronies with federal positions, was in effect.
With the expansion of the federal bureaucracy, and the need for workers with specialized knowledge and skills, by the 1850s the spoils system became untenable. Congress made some attempts at reform in the early 1850s, but its efforts proved inadequate. Following the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 by a disgruntled job seeker, Congress finally made serious efforts to reform the system.
Senator George Hunt Pendleton of Ohio took the lead in Congress. He sponsored a bill that required federal government jobs to be awarded on the basis of merit and that government employees needed to be selected through a system of competitive exams.
The “Act to Regulate and Improve the Civil Service of the United States,” known as the Pendleton Act, passed on January 16, 1883. It not only created a merit-based system for hiring federal employees, it made it illegal to fire or demote employees for political reasons and outlawed the common practice of requiring employees to give political donations. The legislation created the Civil Service Commission to enforce the act’s provisions.
Since its passage, the Pendleton Act has transformed public service, bringing in well-educated and well-trained professionals into the federal workforce. Originally the Pendleton Act covered only 10 percent of the federal government’s employees; today the vast majority positions within the federal government are covered by the legislation.
Pendleton paid a steep price for his efforts, however. While the American public was generally against the patronage system, politicians loved it. Since this was before the 17th Amendment requiring direct election of Senators by the people, the Ohio legislature—who appointed the state’s two Senators—declined to appoint Pendleton for another term.