On the Record

Civil Service Protections

Paul C. Light

Abstract: President Bush has said he will veto any bill creating a Homeland Security Department that includes the civil service protections given to many other government workers. Susan Stamberg talks with Paul Light, Director of The Center for Public Service at the Brookings Institution about the role civil service protections play and what government was like before the civil service merit system came into being in 1888. Light says both Democrats and Republicans feel the system is frighteningly slow and inefficient, but are scared about the alternatives.

Susan Stamberg, host:

Paul Light is here from The Brookings Institution…

So now we just heard that one of the big disputes in the debate over this Homeland Security Department is about whether to let its workers have civil service protection. Where did we get this civil service? Has civil service been with us as long as there’s been government in the United States?

Mr. Paul Light (The Brookings Institution): Absolutely. We hired the first civil servants immediately after the Constitution was ratified, and we’ve had civil servants ever since.

Stamberg: So when did it begin down the path of reaching the immense proportions which we see today? That was late 1800s, wasn’t it?

Mr. Light: Yeah, but I kind of trace it back to 1829 when we built the spoils system. The spoils system was created by Jackson to actually ventilate government. Government at that time was seen as filled with career-oriented, security-craving bureaucrats, and Jackson came into office arguing for what he called rotation in office. It eventually became the spoils system…


Complete Interview (Real Player 4:00)