Recent actions of both Democratic and Republican administrations have undermined much of the strong, independent Civil Service that has slowly developed since its creation in 1885. The Service suffered its most damaging blow late last month, when a Federal judge ruled that the President can fire any government employee at will and without citing any cause, merely by shifting hom from a category of government service that is protected by Civil Service to one that is not.
This ruling effectively climinates the security of tenure, the knowledge that promotion comes through merit and dismissal comes only when deserved. Because salaries are low, security is one of the few attractions of government service. Without it, fewer able men will choose Federal employment instead of higher paying private jobs. Such a trend is illustrated by a recent decline of over 50 percent in the number of students taking the Junior Management Assistantship examinations
But the Democrats are equally to blame. President Truman extended Civil Service protection to many who were Democratic patronage appointees, including a large number of positions not covered before. When President Eisenhower took office, his patronage commitments to Republican leaders were hampered by his campaign promise to trim government payrolls drastically. By using the presidential power to reclassify employees, he took Civil Service protection from many who deserved it, as well as from some of the Democratic appointees who did not. And the new ruling sets no limit on such abuses.
The excuses both administrations have given for their manipulations of a system previously regard as sacrosanct are based on the idea that an administration is more effective when run by its friends. But this assumes that a non-partisan civil service, the bellwether of European governments, is beyond achievement in the U.S. Only policy-making positions need be held by partisans. A lawyer who prosecutes under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (act this was the case for which the judicial ruling was made) is not making policy. But the new ruling, applied by future Presidents with less respect for the civil service, could reach down to oust the lowliest government typist, on the grounds that in her own small way her partisan attachments were hampering her work.
To prevent such a deterioration of the Civil Service, the line of policy-making positions should be more clearly drawn, and by an enactment more stable than a Presidential decree. If federal employees knew when their jobs were safe and when not, they would have greater incentive and a more clearly defined career ladder to climb. Whatever patronage such a line would climinate would be denied equally to both parties.
The original Civil Service Act was passed as a result of bipartisan disgust with the expense and inefficiency of the post-Civil War spoils system. The nation should not have to suffer again before it decides to make these reforms stick.