The Supreme Court's decision to limit the power of politicians to distribute political patronage continues a century-long trend against machine politics and the spoils system.
The decision was made at a time when many political scientists are arguing that expanding the patronage power of elected officials might make bureaucracies more accountable and strengthen beleaguered political parties.
The court acted on the same day that the Senate failed to overturn President Bush's veto of a bill that would have expanded the rights of federal workers to engage in partisan political activity. Taken together, the two decisions reflect a skepticism about mixing partisan politics and civil service employment that is deeply embedded in American history.
On the issue of how much of an independent voice public employees should have as a group, the decisions went in radically different directions. While the Supreme Court was vastly expanding the rights of state and local employees to go their own way on political questions, 35 senators -- enough to sustain Bush's veto -- voted to retain restrictions on the ability of federal employees to act on their political convictions.
Janice Lachance, the political director of the American Federation of Government Employees, praised the Supreme Court for protecting "the First Amendment freedoms" of state and local employees, while "a handful of senators have prevented public employees from exercising these same rights."
A number of political scientists, especially those whose main concern is strengthening political parties, had a different complaint.
Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, described himself as "horrified and saddened" that his work had been cited by Justice William J. Brennan Jr. in the majority opinion limiting patronage. Sabato argues that the elected officials need more, not less, political discretion.
"This helps to establish the bureaucracy even more firmly as a separate branch of government wholly apart from the elected officials," Sabato said. "It gives them more insulation from the elected officials who are supposed to be running the administrative branch of government."
"Patronage has a terrible reputation," Sabato continued, "but it makes the government more responsive by making public offices change when the electorate changes its choices."
James Q. Wilson, a professor of public management and public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, also questioned the decision. "Does this mean that the legitimate interests of elected officials in imposing policy-making on the government must be subordinate to the individual rights of employees to reflect their own opinions?" asked Wilson.
But Esther Fuchs, a political scientist at Barnard College, said that local governments already may be one step ahead of the Supreme Court. "Many cities are hiring temporaries or provisionals when they want to circumvent civil service rules, so the decision may not have much of an impact," she said. Referring to local politicians, she added: "They're not dumb, these guys."
For foes of machine politics, especially in places like Chicago where political organizations still have some power, the political scientists' view overlooks abuses in the patronage system.
Terrence Brunner, executive director of Chicago's Better Government Association, said that instead of making government responsive, the patronage system kept politically connected but incompetent civil servants in office.
"The taxpayers were getting the shaft because they weren't getting the best possible people in government," Brunner said. "If you promoted people on the basis of political clout rather than merit, you demoralized good people in government."
Arguments for and against patronage are, of course, as old as the Republic. The modern patronage system was developed by Andrew Jackson and his able political lieutenant, Martin Van Buren, who later became president himself. Martin Shefter, a political scientist at Cornell University, said that the Jacksonians saw patronage "as good for the country because it was democratic, it insured rotation in office and it brought fresh people into government."
The war on patronage began after the Civil War, especially in reaction to corruption in national Republican administrations and in local, mainly Democratic, machines. The reformers' first victory was the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, which set up the Civil Service Commission. Reform movements gained strength in the Progressive Era after the turn of the century, subjecting more and more jobs at all levels of government to civil service rules.
Patronage politics suffered blows from other sources as well, Wilson noted. The New Deal distributed more and more benefits directly through the federal bureaucracy, circumventing local political organizations; and the prosperity after World War II brought large numbers of voters into the middle class, making them less dependent on the favors of politicians. The growing political importance of television made such middle-class voters even more independent of the will of precinct captains, in those few places where precinct capitains were still at work.
Still, patronage survives in other, highly lucrative forms. Susan Tolchin, a professor of public administration at George Washington University, said that the patronage that really matters to state, local and national political organizations are the large contracts they can give to private businesses.
"Patronage has changed from the traditional Christmas turkey to the big architectural contract and the defense contract," she said. She also noted that many studies of patronage overlook the power that politicians have to get people jobs in the private sector through their contacts with business and corporate leaders. Politicians themselves, she noted, often land such jobs after they leave office -- in banks, in law firms and at investment houses.
Those kinds of jobs might not have been familiar to George Washington Plunkitt, the venerable turn-of-the-century party boss to whom Justice Antonin Scalia turned yesterday for his vigorous defense of patronage. But Plunkitt would have understood them.
"Parties can't hold together," Plunkitt said, "if their workers don't get offices when they win."