Pendleton Act (1883)

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Citation: An Act to regulate and improve the civil service of the United States, January 16, 1883; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives.
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Approved on January 16, 1883, the Pendleton Act established a merit-based system of selecting government officials and supervising their work.

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Following the assassination of President James A. Garfield by a disgruntled job seeker, Congress passed the Pendleton Act in January of 1883. The act was steered through Congress by long-time reformer Senator George Hunt Pendleton of Ohio. The act was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur, who had become an ardent reformer after Garfield’s assassination. The Pendleton Act provided that Federal Government jobs be awarded on the basis of merit and that Government employees be selected through competitive exams. The act also made it unlawful to fire or demote for political reasons employees who were covered by the law. The law further forbids requiring employees to give political service or contributions. The Civil Service Commission was established to enforce this act.

Although President George Washington made most of his Federal appointments based on merit, subsequent Presidents began to deviate from this policy. By the time Andrew Jackson was elected President in 1828, the "spoils system," in which political friends and supporters were rewarded with Government positions, was in full force. The term "spoils system" was derived from the phrase “to the victor go the spoils.” In the years after Jackson’s Presidency, the flaws and abuses in this system were serious. Political appointees were required to spend more and more time and money on political activities. As the Federal bureaucracy grew, Presidents were increasingly hounded by job seekers. In Jackson’s time there were approximately 20,000 Federal employees. By 1884 there were over 130,000. Additionally, with the industrialization of America, Federal jobs became more specialized and required special and specific skills.

The Pendleton Act transformed the nature of public service. Today many well-educated and well-trained professionals have found a rewarding career in Federal service. When the Pendleton Act went into effect, only 10 percent of the Government’s 132,000 employees were covered. Today, more than 90 percent of the 2.7 million Federal employees are covered.

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