Donald Trump is in the process of trying to remove political appointees and career officials who are not loyal to him, and in support of his crusade, the head of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Mike Rigas, is now claiming that the Pendleton Act of 1883 is unconstitutional. You heard that right. I was wondering when we would hit this point.
Trump began this purge after being acquitted in his his mid-February impeachment trial, leaving much of the task to John McEntee, the head the Presidential Personnel Office (PPO) which recruits candidates for the executive branch. On March 17, McEntee forced the director of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), Dale Cabaniss, to resign, replacing her with Michael Rigas. The change from Cabaniss to Rigas happened just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the nation hard — on St. Patrick’s Day, the day my library in Nashua shut down. Since then Rigas has been the one overseeing the two million workers in the federal government. Yesterday, April 22, he stated publicly that the Pendleton Act is unconstitutional. Many Americans have never heard of the bill.
The Pendleton Act
Also known as the Civil Service Act (1883), it replaced the spoils system that had been in place since the presidency of Andrew Jackson (for 54 years), with a system of merit, and it allowed government employees to stay secure in their jobs no matter which party was in power. It’s astonishing that it got passed when it did. In 1883 both parties in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, derived much of their political power from the Jacksonian spoils system. President Rutherford Hayes (1877-1881) had crusaded against the spoils system, but it was his successor Chester Arthur (1881-1885) who got Congress to abolish it and pass the Pendleton Act — despite the fact that Arthur himself was a mighty beneficiary of the spoils system, and a Stalwart Republican (a faction of Republicans at the time loyal to the legacy of Ulysses Grant, and the Jacksonian spoils system). For him to reform the spoils system was career suicide, and it cost him a second term.
But Arthur did what was right, rather than cater to his constituency. His signing of the Pendleton Act marked a watershed moment in America. Civil servants were to be appointed because of their capacity to do the job, not because of whom they knew and what they could pay. Their performances were to be assessed by objective standards and discerned by examinations. These exams were to be administered by a neutral civil service commission and graded by boards that were unaffiliated with factions. Once appointed, civil servants were to serve society rather than parties. They would no longer be subject to mandatory contributions during the elections, and they were given job security without having to worry about losing favor with the party bosses. It was now illegal to fire or demote federal employees for their politics. As a civil servant myself, I cherish this historical moment, and the roles of both Presidents Hayes and Arthur in making it happen. (Hayes and Arthur, in my assessment, were the fourth best and fifth best presidents of the U.S.)
Giant Steps Backwards
The system of Jacksonian spoils hasn’t been the way of things for 137 years now. But Trump and his man Rigas want to bring back that antiquated system, and staff the entire executive branch with partisan appointees.
While I believe the U.S. president should have the right to fire or dismiss cabinet members (or anyone that he appoints) at will if he feels he can’t trust them, that right should not extend to just any officers or career civil servants or special prosecutors, etc. The Pendleton Act and civil service reform under Chester Arthur is one of the most important landmarks in U.S. history. Should that be reversed and the spoils system of Andrew Jackson resurrected, it will be giant steps backward.