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Executive Branch Bureaucracy of the United States

Staffing the Executive Bureaucracy in the United States

Employment in the federal bureaucracy has shifted from being a function of partisan reward to a merit-based system that provides strict rules for hiring, pay, discipline, and the end of employment.

Employment in the federal bureaucracy was initially a function of patronage, or the practice of filling government positions with political allies. Initially this was largely a function of choosing individuals who were known or recommended by friends to staff the small number of offices. As political parties coalesced and gained more influence, the patronage approach hardened in the 1830s into what became known as the "spoils system." The spoils system was the practice of allocating executive offices to loyal members of the political party that was in control of the executive branch. Positions were filled with no regard for expertise but simply on the basis of rewarding partisans and punishing political opponents.

Scandals exposing corruption in the government in the post–Civil War years led to calls for a new approach to filling the bureaucracy. The assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 by an individual angered by his failure to gain an appointive position gave new energy to the calls for reform. In 1883 Congress passed the Pendleton Act, a law that provided for an open, nonpartisan method for choosing individuals to fill jobs in the executive bureaucracy. While only a fraction of jobs were covered when the law was passed, that proportion has grown to be more than 90 percent of all federal employees. Employment is now based on applicants' education, experience, and skills and ability to pass an examination. Employees are governed by the General Schedule Classification System, a system that establishes official titles, levels of work, and pay grades for all civil service positions in the government. Rules establish procedures for raises, promotion, discipline, and the ending of employment. After passing a probationary period, workers are given substantial job security.