That Good Ol’ Patronage System!

By John J. O’Grady, President, Local 704, American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE Local 704), Chicago, Illinois

The word “patronage” is derived from the Latin word patronus for patronPatronage was the distinctive relationship in ancient Roman society between the patronus (patron) and his client.  The relationship was hierarchical, but obligations were mutual. The patronus was the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client; the technical term for this protection was patrocinium.   Benefits a patron might confer include legal representation in court, loans of money, influencing business deals or marriages, and supporting a client’s candidacy for political office.  In return, the client was expected to offer his services to his patron as needed.

The Federal bureaucracy in the years after the Civil War involved extensive patronage in selecting officials and supervising their work.  That system had evolved in the early nineteenth century, and relied on the well-known political adage, “to the victor belong the spoils.”  When a Democrat was elected President, all of the Republican appointees were swept out of office, and vice versa.  The idea of rotation in office caused by election of a candidate from the other party was thought to be “democratic.”

Over the years, political leaders required their patronage appointees to devote time and money to party affairs.  After each election winners were besieged by hungry office-seekers, and wrangling between the President and Congress over patronage became endemic.  By the 1880s, one could open a Washington newspaper after an election and find many advertisements like this one: “WANTED — A GOVERNMENT CLERKSHIP at a salary of not less than $1,000 per annum.  Will give $100 to any one securing me such a position.”  The situation was compounded by the growth of the Federal bureaucracy.  By end of the Civil War there were 53,000 on the federal payroll; by 1884 – 131,000; and by 1891 – 166,000.  Presidents were hounded by office- seekers.  When James A. Garfield became president he discovered hungry office-seekers “lying in wait” for him “like vultures for a wounded bison.”

President James A. Garfield served as the 20th President of the United States, but his presidency lasted only 200 days, when he was assassinated by a disappointed office-seeker.  To prevent further political violence and to assuage public outrage, Congress passed the Pendleton Act in 1883, named after Senator George H. Pendleton, an Ohio Senator, who had sponsored the Act.  The Act helped put an end to the system of patronage that was in widespread use at the time.  Henceforth, applicants for most federal government jobs would have to pass an examination. Federal politicians’ influence over bureaucratic appointments waned, and patronage declined as a national political issue.

The Pendleton Act stipulated that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit, and provided selection of government employees by competitive exams, rather than to cronyism or patronage.  It also made it illegal to fire or demote government employees for political reasons and prohibited soliciting campaign donations on Federal government property. To enforce the merit system and the judicial system, the law also created the United States Civil Service Commission. A crucial result was the shift of the parties to reliance on funding from business, since they could no longer depend on patronage hopefuls.  One obvious result of the passage of the Pendleton Act was more expertise in the civil service – a professional cadre of employees immune from politics.  They did their job day in and day out, regardless of which party was in power.

As a result of patronage, the constant turnover of federal employees provided no institutional memory; government workers panicked at every election and had little sense of loyalty to their jobs, because their tenure was often of such short duration.  The spoils system was ill-suited to efficiency then, and remains so to this day.  Yet, with more and more outsourcing of American jobs, particularly government jobs, along with draconian “reforms” threatened by Congress and this Administration, it appears that the entire concept of Federal civil service may just be scrapped anyway, after over 130 years of establishing a professional cadre of Federal employees, who do their job day in and day, regardless of which party is in office.

Is that progress?

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