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What is the Pendleton Act?

On Behalf of | Sep 19, 2022 | Firm News

As a number of lawmakers have launched new attacks against the federal government’s civil service, some new services have turned their attention to the Pendleton Act. So, what is it?

The Pendleton Act, also known as the Civil Service Act, became law in 1883. It ended the “spoils system” that preceded it and established the Civil Service Commission. This was the beginning of the federal government as we know it today, where the government awards most jobs according to merit.

The origins of the civil services

While the spoils system was in effect, each new administration would fill government jobs however it wanted. It was called the “spoils system” because “to the victor, go the spoils.” However, this system had some serious flaws. Among them were the facts that:

  • Appointees were not always qualified or able to fulfill their duties
  • The system was not equipped to deal with the federal government’s rapid growth
  • It required or encouraged potential candidates to engage in political lobbying
  • It promoted major disruptions in the workforce and inconsistency in government work

The spoils system could also create bad blood, and the turning point arrived when a disgruntled job seeker assassinated President James A. Garfield. After this, Senator George Hunt Pendleton seized upon the desire for reform, and the law that created the Civil Services Commission bears his name.

The Pendleton Act was just the beginning

As the Government Executive recently noted in a podcast, the Pendleton Act was just the first of the changes that led to our current system. Its primary purpose was to establish the tests that would determine who qualified for federal jobs. Even so, those tests didn’t lead straight to a fair and inclusive system. For example, Black people often scored higher on their tests and still didn’t get the jobs.

Additionally, as the National Archives remind us, the hiring reforms created by the Pendleton Act originally applied to only about 10 percent of the government’s 132,000 positions. Since then, the federal government has grown to nearly 3 million employees. The hiring reforms now apply to most of these positions.

In 1978, the Civil Services Commission split into three distinct offices:

  • The Office of Personnel Management serves as the federal government’s human resources department
  • The Merit Systems Protection Board allows employees to appeal adverse actions, ensuring that employees receive treatment based on merit, not prejudice
  • The Federal Labor Relations Authority oversees the relations between federal agencies and labor unions, including compliance and dispute resolution

The existing structure is under attack

While we are unlikely to see federal employees lose their protections under the current administration, the threats to the civil service as we know it are real. The previous administration had created a new designation for federal employees that would have made it possible for agencies to fire tens of thousands of employees at will.

More recently, several lawmakers introduced a bill that would have converted all federal employees to at-will hires. It would have also dismantled the MPSB, eliminating the ability to appeal adverse actions.

Skilled employees or “deep state” operatives?

By now, whether you believe it or not, pretty much everyone has heard about the so-called “deep state.” According to the theories, an untold number of federal employees are part of this deep state, continuing their work from administration to administration, “deep” below the appointments that come with each new administration.

Some believe this system is nefarious and insidious. It doesn’t follow the changing political winds. Others maintain that it allows the government to conduct its work uninterrupted, with skill and experience. And at the heart of that second argument, we have one document to thank or blame—the Pendleton Act.


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