Patronage Questions Asked In 1883 Are Still Relevant Today

The New York State Civil Service Commission began with the enactment of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883. The law was passed after the assassination of President James Garfield, who was shot by a disgruntled seeker of a government job.

The theory behind creating civil service was that competitive examinations and requiring the hiring of those who achieved the highest scores, would prevent politicians from steering jobs to supporters who in many instances were not the most qualified for the positions they filled. Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt sponsored the bill in 1883 that made New York the first state to establish a civil service system. His goal was to base the hiring of government workers on merit, not patronage. In November of 1883, the New York State Civil Service Commission forwarded written questions to officials across New York State “…with reference to the action of political parties and public officers in the matter of patronage”. One hundred and twenty nine years later the questions asked in 1883 are still relevant today as political patronage is alive and well particularly at the local government level.

Below are a few of the questions asked in 1883 by the New York State Civil Service Commission. You can view all of the questions and the answers submitted by several individuals including Assemblymember Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas J. Rogers, City of Buffalo Engineer. The questions and answers begin on page 219.

  • Are appointments made by the … the recommendation of local committees, or public officers, or of prominent representatives of any political party?
  • When two persons of equal apparent merit apply for position, and one has the support of political committees, or prominent politicians, or partisan reasons of any kind to recommend him, and the other has none of these, to which of the applicants … is the preference given?
  • Is the partisan services previously rendered, or the partisan service expected in the future, a controlling reason for making appointments…?
  • What proportion of appointments are made solely upon the ground of merit and the fitness of the appointee, without expectation of partisan service or the desire to oblige some prominent partisan recommending the appointee?
  • … is it or is it not considered treachery to a political party or organization to appoint persons to subordinate positions not of the same political party or organization as the officer who makes the appointment?
  • Is it possible for a public officer, deriving his own title or position through the action of a political party, to act independently in making appointments of subordinates, and disregard the recommendations or requests of his political associates or friends, without losing or putting in jeopardy his own political standing and influence?
  • By the present methods, are removals of subordinates made for political reasons, or to provide places for political friends?
  • …. do persons seeking appointments as subordinates depend mostly upon the power and influence of the political party which they belong, or upon their qualifications and fitness for the position?
  • Is the public service elevated or lower by the present methods of appointment and removal,…?
  • Would the public interest be advanced by prescribing competitive tests or standards of appointments for any subordinate public servants…?

There are certainly pros and cons to the civil service system but without a doubt politicians have found many ways to game the system in an effort to fill positions with political supporters.

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