The bad old days of the Spoils System could be returning to a state or local government near you if Governor Brewer and Republican legislators have their way. Brewer has been making noises about calling a special session as soon as October to end Arizona’s merit protection system.
A little history. The Spoils System was a staple of 19th century American government. When a political party came to power, it fired the government workers put in place by the other party and replaced them with their own handpicked family, friends and political pals. Party affiliation trumped qualifications. To the winner went the spoils.
In the 1880s, good government advocates passed the national Civil Service Act to put an end to the general corruption and major scandals caused by all the partisan hirings and firings. It took longer for states to pick up the reforms. Arizona didn’t pass its own merit protection system until 1969.
Clearly, today’s government employment system is far from perfect, but it beats the alternative by miles. As Teddy Roosevelt, one of the early champions of civil service protections, said, “Government jobs belong to the American people, not politicians, and shall be filled only with regard to public service.”
Now, Brewer plans to bring back the bad old days of the Spoils System.
As anyone who reads this column knows, I’m a proud, partisan Democrat. But I want to make clear the merit protection system isn’t a Republicans versus Democrats issue. It’s about good government versus corruption.
Some of the worst abusers of the 19th century Spoils System were Democrats. Think New York’s Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall political machine. Here in Arizona, it was the Republicans who were the good government, merit-system reformers. Our state legislature was mostly controlled by Democrats until the mid-1960s, and Republicans, who had recently come into power and had felt the sting of a political patronage system, changed things for the better in 1969.
But power corrupts, and after 46 years in control of the legislature, Republicans today are a different breed from their 1960s predecessors. They want to wipe out the merit system so they can extend their political reach beyond the Capitol Building and into nonpartisan agencies of government.
Of course, that’s not how Republicans like to portray this naked power grab. Instead of calling it “the spoils system,” they prefer the term “at-will hiring.” All they want, they claim, is to make it easier to fire incompetent government workers.
Senate President Russell Pearce, for instance, told the Capitol Times, “It’s a great thing to hire at-will. All it is, is efficiency in government.”
Pearce would have been wise to issue a “No comment” instead of talking about “efficiency in government,” given his own questionable hiring practices. Before he was a senator, Pearce was director of Arizona’s Motor Vehicle Division. During his tenure, his son Justin, then 20, was hired by the MVD. He had to be fired soon after for creating false IDs so he and his underage friends could buy beer.
Would Justin, a troubled young man whose drug problems have landed him in trouble with the law many times since, have been hired if his last name wasn’t Pearce? It’s doubtful. Should Russell Pearce and his cronies be trusted to hire and fire government employees at will in the name of “efficiency”? The answer is a resounding “no.”
Since the 1980s, Republicans nationwide have run on the campaign slogan, “Government doesn’t work.” If they give themselves free rein to hire campaign donors, political hacks and ne’er-do-well friends and relations, they’ll be able to prove their point every day of the year. With “at-will hiring,” government will run at the will, and the whim, of those in power.
Teddy Roosevelt had it right when he said, “Government jobs belong to the American people, not politicians, and shall be filled only with regard to public service.” Let’s keep politicians’ hands off of government employment.
Dave Safier is a regular contributor to Blog for Arizona.