Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Patronage, Merit, and the Bill of Rights: Evolution and Current Trends in Public Employment

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

Patronage, Merit, and the Bill of Rights: Evolution and Current Trends in Public Employment

Article excerpt


The constitutional and political relationship between the Bill of Rights and public personnel administration has evolved into an important and complex area of civil liberties inquiry. The last two centuries have witnessed only a cautious pattern of judicial activity in determining the nature and criteria to be utilized in shaping the appointment power of the Executive branch. Section two of Article II allows Congress to vest "the appointment of such inferior officers as they think proper in the President, alone, in the courts of law, or in the Heads of Departments." However, the pattern of judicial activity in determining the proper constitutional balance between partisan patronage and merit appointment or removal criteria has dramatically accelerated over the last two decades.

It has taken approximately 200 years for the Supreme Court to address conclusively the hoary question of the fitness of government officers that was originally debated in the Federalist Papers and the Anti-Federalist literature. The utilization of the First Amendment protection of freedom of association as a tool in defining individual public employment rights has provided the vehicle to define the legitimate criteria ultimately to be used in staffing a large portion of the American administrative state. In this sense, the Bill of Right has ultimately had a profound impact on the relative balance that was struck between partisan patronage and merit criteria in appointing or removing government employees.


The constitutional issues surrounding the proper balance between merit and political patronage criteria used in staffing public bureaucracies have been a source of both considerable judicial activity and scholarly interest (Rosenbloom, 1971; Van Alstyne, 1968; Van Riper, 1958). A unique relationship between the citizen and the state is embodied in public employment and legislatures and courts continue to shape its political and legal parameters. Normative questions related to the proper role of the public service in a democratic governmental system are also relevant to the patronage-merit debate.

The arguments for a strong administrative state made by Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist set the tone for subsequent scholarly debates on the "politics-administration dichotomy," the meaning of "administrative citizenship," and the policy-making authority of a career bureaucracy that is supposed to be both politically "neutral" in its hiring procedures and operation and "responsive" to the political demands of its institutional constituencies. While Woodrow Wilson' advocacy of the dichotomy has essentially been laid to scholarly rest, the desirability of policy based upon shifting electoral outcomes versus the stability of institutional, bureaucratic commitment in defining the public interest continues to be unresolved.

The examination of democratic theory from a public administration perspective has continued unabated over the last half century. The theoretical arguments of the "administrative as politics" school and the idealistic, if politically naive, "New Public Administration" movement of the late 1960s stressed the supremacy of politics and emphasized electoral participation, policy advocacy, and majoritarianism as defining values. The pendulum defining the parameters of the politics-merit debate swung back and forth through the controversy surrounding the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 overlapping with the career "bureaucrat bashing" crescendo of the Carter-Reagan presidencies.

Confusion over the proper roles of political appointees and merit-based, career administrators in this contemporary period has occurred in the context of the "new politics" of single-issue politics, narrow interest group policy activity, and the increasing use of federal political appointments in non-policy administrative positions that has had the potential for partisan abuse.

Newland (1987) points out that this phenomenon has had a profound effect on the politics-merit relationship because it represents a critical source of "new" political patronage to the candidate organization-dominant politics of presidential electoral campaigns and its potential for corruption. …

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