Room 473-B
State House
Boston, MA 02133
Telephone: (617) 722-2230
District Office
585A Main St.
Winchester, MA 01890
Telephone: (617) 721-7285 or (617) 438-7185

A View from the Hill

CONTACT: Tommy Voltero (617) 722-2240


Assassinations are tumultuous events in history because they have the potential to change its course. A disgruntled actor ended the life of the great Abraham Lincoln who was about to write a new chapter of history with "malice towards none." A gunshot fired into the car of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 and plunged the world into one of the most gruesome wars it had ever seen.

Despite these tragic examples, there is a case where something positive indirectly resulted from an assassination. The story is about James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, whose brief term was consumed by a controversy involving political appointments. Garfield was gunned down by a disappointed office seeker, and strangely, his murder proved to be a catalyst for change. Reformers charged that the system of patronage that dominated civil service had killed Garfield, and cried out for clean government.

Patronage had grown out of Jacksonian democracy and the rise of mass-based political parties. Jackson's fight against government aristocracy bolstered the new parties, opening the door for upward mobility. In the new party system citizens could find a place in politics so long as they were loyal. Working for party "machines," loyalists were required to devote both time and money to the interests of political "bosses." "Patrons" worked vigorously to get the candidate elected, and upon victory the team would be rewarded with government jobs.

Problems arose in the mid 1800s when rival Whigs and Democrats (and later, Republicans) essentially traded power every other year. Winning parties purged members of the losing party and replaced them with loyalists, giving meaning to the phrase, "to the victor go the spoils." This meant that government workers often had no qualifications other than their party loyalty. Coupled with the fact that public office was a revolving door, it was all but impossible to carry out effective and efficient public policy. Furthermore, much of the workday was devoted to bolstering the politician's image, rather than carrying out the duties of the post. This fostered the view that government was a corrupt conglomeration of party bosses and henchmen driven by greed and favoritism.

Such a negative image sparked a movement for change. In 1865, an effort to fill non-policymaking positions by candidates who scored well on competitive examinations was proposed in Congress. "Merit" and not loyalty would have been the new standard of public service. Based on equal opportunity, a system was devised to ensure that posts be staffed by qualified, non-partisan bureaucrats instead of party hacks. The effort was defeated, however, and it was not until the assassination of Garfield in 1881 that reformers could finally do something. Riding on the coattails of the national tragedy, Congress passed the Pendelton Act in 1883, establishing the Civil Service Commission whose function was to dampen political influence by conducting examinations of public job seekers.

The Pendelton Act transformed the face of public service. By the early 20th century, many civil servants were well educated professionals who were hired on the basis of qualifications rather than "connections." Government jobs, both federal and state, became stable and rewarding means of employment, and have continued to be into the present day.

In 1884, Massachusetts embraced the reformist ideology by enacting its own civil service laws which promoted objectivity and fairness by distinguishing the most qualified applicants on the basis of merit. Chapter 31 of the General Laws seeks to curb illicit corruption by mandating that employees be "protected against coercion for political purposes," and "arbitrary and capricious actions." This chapter also outlines the "Basic Merit Principles" that guide the selection, promotion, training, compensation, and discipline of civil servants, and defines the Civil Service Commission, which is responsible for maintaining the system's integrity. All of these measures enhance the effectiveness of the civil service core by liberating it from the clutches of politics.

Our civil service system has greatly profited from the changes begun in the 19th century and continues to work well. Regardless, the system still comes under constant attack. As Chairman of Public Service, I am constantly faced with special legislation and home rule petitions that seek to abrogate many well intentioned procedures and exempt individuals or positions from civil service requirements. We are hesitant to pass this legislation because even the smallest exception be a crack in the dam. Once this crack grows, the entire floodgates will come crashing down, drowning our civil service laws.

Through the years, the need of the state to carry out its many duties and responsibilities has demanded that the Commonwealth employs a wide array of skilled personnel. Whether it is monitoring earthquakes or enforcing traffic laws, our scope of civil service is remarkable. Yet, in spite of the size of its civil service core, the state is very selective because of the serious nature of government work. The merit procedures, while arguably not "foolproof," do assist government in the difficult task of selecting candidates. By selecting the most qualified applicants by what they know and not who they know, we foster a sustainable, fair system geared towards maximizing efficiencies and diversities.

Understandably, the system is not perfect and may need tweaking in order to keep up with changing job descriptions and duties. Indeed, civil service should develop to reflect the vocations and procedures of today. The solution, however, should be systemic reform rather than selective dismantling. Otherwise we risk resurrecting the same abominable practices that permeated the 19th century. It is unwise to disregard the laws and destroy the system we have taken so long to build. To do so would be to bring us back to the days of bosses and machines, forgetting that "civil" society is ruled by laws and not men.

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