In Praise of Patronage

The executive branch needs more of it, not less.

Barack Obama introduces members of his National Security Team

When the Washington Post reported that political appointees throughout the Bush administration were being converted into civil servants, a practice known as “burrowing,” liberals were furious. Senate Democrats called for a halt to the practice. Bloggers such as Matthew Yglesias (semi-seriously) suggested that“we’ll have the top layer of the civil service filled with industry shills,” while those at TPMMuckraker vowed to “see what we can find out.” Their concern is that civil-service protections, ostensibly designed to insulate the bureaucracy from political influence, will instead safeguard the political appointees of a deeply unpopular lame-duck administration.

It’s a valid concern—but in this case, it’s misplaced. President-elect Barack Obama will find it easier to replace the Oval Office draperies than to replace officials who supposedly work for him. What the executive branch needs is more patronage, not less.

Despite all of the talk of the resurgence of the imperial presidency, contemporary presidents actually have surprisingly modest powers when it comes to staffing the government. For most of American history, presidents enjoyed much greater power to hire and fire federal employees, from Cabinet secretaries to rural postmasters. True, many of those officials were subject to Senate confirmation, and the realities of politics have always made dismissing officials a dangerous business. Nonetheless, the president could remove many officeholders at will. (As Huey Long and the first Mayor Daley could attest, state and local executives long enjoyed even broader patronage powers.)

The textbook version of American history holds that patronage (or the “spoils system”) was a wicked tradition that led to the assassination of President James Garfield by a disappointed job seeker and the consequent passage under the Chester Arthur administration of the Pendleton Act, which created the modern and efficient civil service that we enjoy today.

But Arthur biographer Zachary Karabell makes plain that the textbooks are wrong. Although Arthur (himself a product of the patronage machine of the New York Republican Party, who had only become Garfield’s running mate to placate the base) supported the Pendleton Act, the real catalyst was the GOP’s disastrous losses in the 1882 midterm elections. With Congress about to pass into Democratic hands, the GOP resurrected the Pendleton civil-service reforms during the lame-duck session in order to protect the tens of thousands of Republican patronage appointees in federal service.

It’s true that civil service reforms did yield an approximation of the ideal of impartial competence. But the Great Depression and World War II proved that a civil service adapted to routine was incapable of managing large-scale innovation, necessitating the emergence of the so-called “dollar-a-year” men—former industry executives who oversaw war production and manpower efforts.

Yet during the past 60 years, it has been the civil service (viewed as professional and technocratic) and not political appointees (seen as corrupt or unqualified) that has gained the upper hand in public opinion. In 1976, the Supreme Court somewhat hysterically compared the patronage tactics of the Cook County Democratic machine to those of the Nazis. More recently, political appointees have been blamed for the failure of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the mismanagement of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, a slew of scandals and investigations in the Justice Department, and various other misadventures during the last eight years. Indeed, many senior officials in the federal government would view the very term political as pejorative.

On its merits, though, it’s hard to justify the mixed system that has evolved since the Pendleton Act’s passage. The vast majority of federal employees, from the lowliest clerk to very senior managers, are civil service appointments. The president names only a handful of executive branch policymakers and senior managers directly, with or without Senate confirmation. The oft-cited figure of 7,000 is misleading and includes purely nominal positions, such as the 55 members of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, nearly 100 U.S. marshals appointed in “consultation” with senators, and dozens of ambassadors who will, by nearly inviolate custom, be members of the career Foreign Service. Many other positions will be filled from a pool of career senior civil-service executives. The structure of the executive branch personnel system, in other words, militates against rapid and fundamental change.

In a democracy, however, sometimes rapid and fundamental change is both necessary and sustained by the popular will. (Think of the New Deal—or the Reagan Revolution, if you prefer.) If the president can’t make such changes directly in the agencies, then he will attempt to go outside the system by making the White House staff responsible for policy management. Having members of the White House staff, who are remote from the departments and entirely dependent on the president’s favor for their influence, in charge of operations is the worst of all possible worlds. But given the inflexibility of civil service rules and the difficulty of navigating the Senate confirmation process, it’s no surprise that presidents often resort to the creation of yet another “czar”—or the legal-because-we-say-it-is “recess appointment“—to fill government ranks.

Making more positions open to political appointees (and a greater proportion of those to positions that wouldn’t require Senate confirmation) would place greater responsibility on the president and his agency heads. Short of shrinking the government and its responsibilities, there is no alternative if the link between voters’ choice of president and the president’s management of the government is to be preserved.

Many academics seem to yearn for a British-style impartial civil service. But that would be incompatible with American traditions and, as viewers of Yes, Minister know, the impartiality of the senior British civil servant is a bit of a myth. And were we to follow the technocratic idea to its ultimate end, relying too heavily on experience would argue for the abolishment of presidential appointments for all but the most senior government officials. At the same time, Obama’s decision to keep Robert Gates as secretary of defense shows that presidents know the value of experience.

Of course, there is next to no chance that either Congress would allow, or the administration would argue for, more political appointees in the executive branch. Opening up the bureaucracy to outsiders would be a threat to Congress’ prerogatives and, more important, to key constituencies that have established relationships with bureaucrats. And no administration really wants to have greater flexibility in installing “inexperienced” officials who, although potentially more skillful than the civil servants they would lead, might also fail—and thereby present the administration’s critics with an easy target.

Too bad. The “hope” and “change” that Barack Obama promised for the 21st century may have to be delivered by a 19th-century institution.