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The Spoils System

  • Gilded Age corruption led to civil service reform in 1883
  • Today, two-thirds of government jobs are awarded on basis of merit, vs. one-tenth awarded by political patronage

Government employees, many people assume, are a bunch of leeches—the relatives and friends of politicians who got their jobs through patronage. Politicians use government jobs to reward campaign workers and fat-cat donors for their support.

But this is far less true than it used to be. Well into the nineteenth century, most government positions were distributed by the president himself in order to reward political supporters. President Andrew Jackson is often credited with (or criticized for) introducing the "spoils system" as a tool for strengthening the base of his political party. But in 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act,, making a portion of all federal government jobs attainable only through a competitive process that usually began with a written examination—a way of making sure that jobs would be awarded based on merit rather than corruption. Initially, only about ten percent of all government jobs were distributed through these means. Today, closer to two-thirds of all federal jobs are distributed through a competitive process overseen by the Office of Personnel Management (the federal government's hiring office). Almost all of the rest are distributed by the individual agencies using their own merit-based criteria. Only about three percent of all federal employees today are appointed by the president or hired outside of the formal merit-based processes.

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