Is The Federal Civil Service the Deep State?

In 1883 the Federal Civil Service was created to fill government jobs with competent people, not on the whims of the most recent political presidential candidate. The old system was called the “spoils system,” where political cronies lined up for lucrative payoffs for helping their candidate win. The spoils system originated from the 1820 Tenure of Office Act, which limited the terms of officials to the four years corresponding to the election of a new president. It was called the spoils system because the supporters of the successful candidate for president would line up to get lucrative positions in the new administration. This led to vast corruption.

As the nation grew bigger and more complex, it became apparent that this was not a good system. President Grant made the first moves toward reform following the Civil War, but it took the assassination of President James Garfield, by Charles Guiteau, a disappointed and angry office seeker, for it to become an important issue in the 1862 election. The result was the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883. It ended the spoils system by opening governmental appointments to all citizens, based on merit and testing, to find the best qualified candidate. The 1883 Act applied to only 10.5 percent of federal employees, but by 1952 it applied to over 90 percent.

One thing all governments, whether democratic or authoritarian, have in common, is their reliance on bureaucratic office holders to carry out their policies. The question is, who holds those offices? The U.S. Civil Service system is the envy of many countries in the world. The Hatch Act of 1940 made it illegal for federal employees to be politically active. They may vote and express political positions in private, can belong and contribute to political groups, and go to their meetings; however, their role must be passive and not as an active participant. They may not run for political office, hold office in a political organization, or take an active part in a political campaign.

The Equal Pay Act (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Age Discrimination Act (1967), Rehabilitation Act (1973), and the Americans With Disabilities Act (1990) have increased the inclusiveness of our federal employees. In other words, the composition of its members look a lot like the country. They are hired based on competence within a competitive system. They are required to behave in a nonpartisan basis, and to apply their rulings according to the law rather than the will of one political leader or another. The principles of civil service are that the most qualified person be appointed to the job, and not their political activity, or the patronage of a political leader. Once in office, civil servants are protected from the political whims of those in power.

Why then do some politicians disparage the U.S. government, and talk of an evil “deep state?” For the ultra-rich and would be authoritarians, the U.S. federal bureaucracy restricts their access to the immense wealth and power of the country. How better to take over the country than to run against “the government” as an evil cause of all that is wrong. The U.S. has a history of strong institutions that are capable of standing up against would be strong men, whose aim is authoritarianism. Under authoritarian government, the bureaucracy is filled with ambitious sycophants whose loyalty is purchased through their access to share in the wealth and power of the country. We need look no further than the Putin government in Russia.

What we sometimes do, is mistake the intent of the laws our elected representatives pass with the bureaucrats who must carry them out. The federal bureaucracy has not decided to make money the governing authority of the US. It is not the federal bureaucracy that has shifted the tax burden from the wealthiest strata of society to the middle and working classes. It is not the federal bureaucracy that decides how public education is funded and run. It is not the federal bureaucracy that decides how large our defense industry should be, or when and how to use our military forces. All of those issues, and others, are decided by our elected officials who pass the laws. The federal bureaucracy carries out the intent of the laws elected representatives pass. Instead of being an evil deep state, the federal bureaucracy is a bulwark of office holders upholding the laws of a democratic government.