President Trump continued his efforts to drive the United States back to the 19th century during his State of the Union address last week.
Standing in front of a divided Congress, with possible obstruction charges looming over him and facing governance struggles produced by his ineffective leadership, the president sought to undermine a 135-year-old law protecting federal civil servants from the whims of tyrants and hacks. “I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” he said.
While this plea sounds sensible, it actually represents a historic threat to the U.S. government and to some of its most vulnerable citizens. Recognizing that threat requires understanding two crucial and related pieces of context — first, how the law Trump seeks to dissolve came into being, and second, how the effort to undermine it fits into a larger pattern of racist ideas driving the Trump administration’s actions.
Why can’t a Cabinet secretary simply fire federal employees? Before 1883, they did just that on a regular basis. Federal employees came and went on the orders of political appointees with each electoral cycle. Every four years, federal workers sat waiting with bags packed to find out if their party would hold on to power and they onto their livelihoods.
Claiming these spoils of victory enabled a president and his Cabinet secretaries to hand out high-paying, desirable jobs to political supporters. Abraham Lincoln famously — or infamously — cleaned house in 1861 to reward his new political party whose members had not tasted federal salaries since the collapse of the Whig party a decade earlier.
But in the 1870s, consistency and competence in the federal bureaucracy became more important as the nation’s political and commercial life grew more complex. Americans became increasingly aware of political corruption (see: the Grant administration) and its drag on government and commercial efficiency. When, in July 1881, President James A. Garfield was assassinated by disgruntled office seeker Charles Guiteau, the push for reform gained enough momentum to force Congress to rein in the patronage system.
The Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 cost its namesake, Sen. George H. Pendleton (Ohio), his job in a political backlash against the new anti-spoils system. Nevertheless, the Pendleton Act was a major step forward for good government, and over the next quarter-century the majority of ordinary and largely essential civil service positions became disconnected from political machinations, filled instead through a standard set of hiring practices and exams, and protected from arbitrary firing.
The system was never perfect, and political affiliation has continued to matter for employment prospects in Washington right up through the present. Still, today the U.S. government does have something resembling what political scientists call an “autonomous” civil service — that is, a federal bureaucracy sheltered from political winds.
The result is a more stable and experienced government workforce, a Congress that gets accurate reports from its research bureaus and federal departments that provide a certain level of regulatory consistency for citizens and businesses at home and around the world.
Trump’s upending of decades of civil service protections is not about accountability. Such changes would clearly risk a return to more corrupt and less competent government. Even worse, Trump’s proposal and the rhetoric surrounding it also threaten to undermine a second set of crucial reforms that occurred thanks to the civil rights movement.
During the 1960s, the civil rights movement pushed the government to guarantee racial equality in federal employment. This effort was more successful than attempts to transform the private workforce, largely because of federal training programs, standardized hiring procedures and fixed pay scales that weeded out bias, aggressive anti-discrimination measures and historic mentorship and seniority lines dating to the Johnson administration. Today, African Americans are 30 percent more likely to work in civil service than white Americans. Black men and women, just 13 percent of the U.S. population and with an unemployment rate double that of white Americans, make up about 18 percent of the federal workforce.
Over the past 30 years, conservative valorization of “market solutions” has been accompanied by deeply racialized notions of government inefficiency that aims to undermine these civil rights achievements by invoking the image of a wasteful, corrupt public workforce — one viewed by many Americans as dominated by African Americans. Commentator Pat Buchanan, for example, claimed that federal offices under the Obama administration operated according to a “racial spoils system.” For Buchanan and many others, the drive for a leaner government merges with a racist suspicion of black workers — what they see as the most rotten part of the bureaucracy.
Moreover, the president’s attack on the stability of government jobs comes at a rough time for public servants, who have been battered by austerity measures that have made jobs scarcer.
These measures have also deepened the racial disparity in the public workforce, which, along with the growing racial wealth gap that deprives nonwhite Americans of stability and mobility, transforms Trump’s assault on the Pendleton Act from merely historically ignorant and potentially corrupt into something more. It becomes a nod to the same racist worldview that produces the profound suspicion of people of color that has defined much of Trump’s political life.
Continuous conflation of blackness and wastefulness in American governance, a conflation pushed by writers and politicians like Buchanan and Trump, marks African Americans as incapable of earning “the public’s trust” through good governance, a stain that persists into today’s politics, from assumptions of black voting malfeasance to questions about President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
And that returns us to Trump’s rise to the presidency. Calls for government accountability have long merged racism and anti-government rhetoric but have traditionally stopped short of resurrecting the spoils system. Then again, politicians have traditionally veiled their positions in generous and moderately realistic visions of humanity to maintain moral ground and the capacity to govern. In his latest call for the gutting of civil service reforms, Trump seems hellbent on surrendering both.