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#USA2024The civil service, the silent front of the war...

The civil service, the silent front of the war between Trump and Biden

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The presidential elections of 2024 will see a rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, two candidates selected by a deeply divided and polarized electorate. In this context, the civil service represents a relatively obscure, but crucial front in this battle. With Mr. Trump aimed to politicize it and Mr. Biden aimed to preserve its independence.

To the victors belong the spoils

The political influence on the appointment of the civil service better know as Patronage was very common in the England of the Stuart, this practice was exported in the territories of the north american colonies. The success of the American Revolution didn’t change this state of affair. George Washington, the first and the only President who enjoyed unanimous approval, was inclined to appoint federalist officials, exactly as his successor John Adams, who was the architect of the “midnight appointments”, aimed to strengthen the federalist control on the civil service. Thomas Jefferson, the first President from the Democratic-Republican Party appointed a huge number of officials who belonged to his political party. The later years seen the complete domination of the Democratic-Republican Party which culminated wit the approbation of the Tenure of Office Act In 1820. The act imposed tenure limits for officeholders and insured their removal under certain conditions. These provisions conferred an immense power to the Presidency, the ability to remove incumbent officials. Despite that, non Monroe, neither his successor John Quincy Adams room advantage of this power. In general, the civil service under the first six Presidents was undoubtedly marked by political patronage, but it was also a high quality system, thanks to the small number of federal jobs and the general weakness of political parties. Unfortunately, it had a terrible problem, its un-democratic character. The civil service was in fact largely composed by members of well to do families, excluding the largest part of the population. This state of affairs, would have paved the way to its downfall.

The victory of Andrew Jackson in 1828 represented the first transition between two different parties since 1800. The “Old Hickory”’ was supported by a large mass of farmers and pioneers which stormed the White House. The mob which made possible the election of Andrew Jackson was aimed to storm the civil service in the same manner it had stormed the White House. By Jackson’s time, the country had acquired new territories which required officials to administer them and the civil service had become bigger and more complex. President Andrew Jackson removed 10% of the officials from their positions in order to appoint its political fellows. The old Hickory painted this as an attempt to make sure that the people’s will would have been represented also in the civil service, but it actually represented a political maneuver aimed to appoint loyal officials. In 1832 William L. Marcy, Senator from New York, defended the nomination of Martin Van Bren as Minister to the United Kingdom by saying: “To the victor belong the spoils”. The Presidency of John Tyler, a Whig Party member and an opponent of Andrew Jackson, didn’t change this state of affairs. The spoil system had its root in the colonial period and it was very rooted in the American political system, both at local and national level. Due to this, it enjoyed bipartisan support. The system reached its peak during the 1845-65 period, which saw all the Presidents making a constant use of the remove as a political weapon. William H. Seward, later Secretary of State under Lincoln, described this worrying state of affairs by saying: “The world seems almost divided in two classes: those who are going to California in search of gold and those going to Washington in quest for office”. The people’s dissatisfaction with the civil service would have caused the death of the spoil system exactly as it paved the way for the death of the “aristocratic” civil service” in 1828. 

The reform

During the Civil War Lincoln used political patronage as an instrument in order to get the political support he required from all the factions of the Republican Party, but during this period, the people’s dissatisfaction was turned into political attempts to reform the civil service. After the end of his first mandate, President Lincoln refused to remove the officials he had appointed, blowing a crucial part of the spoil system, the rotation, but his death prevented any attempt at a comprehensive reform of the civil service. Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson once again tried to use political patronage to strengthen his political position, but in 1867 the Congress replaced the Tenure of Office Act with another bill with the same name, overriding Johnson’s veto. This act restricted the removal power of the President. One year later the Joint Select Committee on Retrenchment released a report evaluating other civil services like the Prussian, recommending competitive examination to appoint civil service officers. Even though the recommendation was defeated, the political climate was now clearly against the spoil system. During Grant’s Presidency in 1870, the Secretary of Treasury George S. Boutewell issued a departmental order setting up a system of competitive examinations for lower-grade officials in his department. This represented the first real reform toward a merit based civil service, which was followed by the creation of the “Civil Service Commission” toward the Appropriation Bill of 1871. This act appropriated resources for the creation of a civil service commission composed of three members from government service and four outside. Competitive exams for appointment were held for civil service positions in the cities of New York and Washington, but the Congress, which still relied heavily on patronage, cut the appropriation in 1874. Despite his controversial election to the Presidency, Rutherford B. Hayes achieved some important success on the civil service reform by using its executive authority. He instituted competitive examinations of the New York customhouse and post office. Finally, in 1883 the Congress, besieged by petitions about civil service reform signed by thousands of people, approved the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act. 

The Pendleton act imposed competitive exams for some civil service positions and revived the Civil Service Commission. In the first phase, the Pendleton Act covered only the 10% of the civil service positions, the great part of the civil service was still dominated by the spoil system and the Civil Service Commission greatly suffered from understaffing and inadequate appropriations. During the Presidencies of Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt more positions were placed under the provisions of the Pendleton Act, and the spoil system position became fewer and fewer, in particular during Cleveland’s first mandate the Tenure of Office Act was repealed in 1887. During this period the majority of states and cities adopted a merit based civil service system, effectively ending the spoil system domination. In 1939 the Hatch Act restricted the possibility to conduct political campaigns by federal employees and prohibited the use of public funds appropriated for relief or public works for electoral purposes. The provisions of the Hatch Act were extended to certain employees primarily paid by federal funds at state and local level. 

The new spoil system 

After being elected in 2016, Donald J. Trump, a former businessman who enjoyed total control of his company, repeatedly showed a big intolerance of the US checks and balances system. He clearly stated that he thought it would be easier being President and slammed the judges appointed by President Obama. But above all, President Trump tried to politicize apolitical institutions. In particular he pressured the President of the Federal Reserve Jerome Powell to cut the interests rate, effectively threatening the autonomy of the FED. In October 2020 President Trump issued the Executive Order 13957, this order established a new category of employees within the Excepted Service called “Schedule F”. The Excepted Service is indicated by the Code of the Laws of the United States as the category of public administration that does not fall within either the Competitive Service, i.e. the category of employees selected through a competition, or the Senior Executive Service. The employees chosen within the Except Service represent categories of political appointment, as in the case of category C, or peculiar categories such as A, which holds roles which by their very nature preclude the possibility of conducting an exam. Category F included federal employees in positions judged to be “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating character”, the employees included in this category would therefore be subject to political appointment and without the Civil Service Rules and Regulations in the event of dismissal. The executive order also sanctioned the transition of numerous public administration roles from the competitive service to category F, significantly increasing the influence of the executive within the civil service. 

The issuance of the Executive Order by then President Trump aroused a strong reaction from the Democratic Party, which materialized through the introduction of the Saving Civil Service Act in Congress, without however succeeding in approving the latter. The measure, however, was also criticized by the Republican Ronald Sanders, Chair of the Federal Salary Council, who announced his resignation, asserting as a Republican who had served three Democratic and three Republican presidents that the measure was only “a smokescreen for what is a clear attempt to demand the political loyalty of those assisting the President, or if this is not the case, remove them without due process.” Trump’s move was widely perceived as a maneuver aimed at politicizing the civil service and exercising greater control over it. The strong dispute over the creation of the Schedule F ended with the election of Joe Biden, who issued an Executive Order aimed at rescinding Trump’s provision, dissolving the Schedule F. Various indicative reports suggest that Trump plans to restore Category F in case of re-election in 2024, this maneuver in this case would have an even greater impact, as it would be implemented at the beginning of the presidential mandate

The silent war

During the Biden Presidency the democrat controlled Congress tried to approve some measures aimed to prevent a reformation of the Schedule F. The democratic representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia introduced a bill named Preventing a Patronage System Act within the National Defense Authorization Act of 2023. It was approved by the Chamber, but was ultimately removed from the final bill. At the same time, the reinstatement of the Schedule F was included between the proposals of the Trump electoral campaign. The politicization of the civil service represents a crucial, but silent front of the battle between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, which can potentially reshape the USA for the next decades. A battle between a political force aimed to disrupt the historical checks and balance system in the US and another aimed to preserve it. During the 2022 elections, the extremist message of Donald Trump, who promoted candidates that supported his false claims about electoral fraud, contributed to the poor results of the Republican Party. The Tycoon’s conduct and his disrespect for the checks and balance system could ultimately lead to his definitive downfall.

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