How the Assassination of James A. Garfield Haunts VA Reform

Congress's proposal to fix the broken agency risks taking the country back to the patronage-job system of the 19th century.
The assassination of James A. Garfield by Charles Guiteau (Library of Congress)

When Mark Twain collaborated with his neighbor Charles Dudley Warner in 1873 to write the novel The Gilded Age, it received mixed reviews—but it became a classic, in large part because of its title, which has come to define an era of thorough and deep corruption in public affairs and governance.

Not the least of the corrupting and shocking dynamics of that era was the spoils system—the distribution of government jobs not based on competence, experience, or expertise, but for political patronage, to curry favor and extract in return money to remain in office or to attain office.

Despite public unhappiness, the spoils system remained in place—its Republican supporters, including Chester Arthur, were called "the Stalwarts"—until a massive public uprising upon the assassination of President Garfield by a disappointed office seeker. Charles Guiteau shouted after shooting Garfield, "I am a Stalwart .... Arthur is president!" Guiteau was hanged, and Arthur, who was Garfield's vice president, ascended to the presidency.

But horrified by the assassination, Arthur abandoned his support for the spoils system and championed reform. The result was the Pendleton Act of 1883, which established the principle that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit, not patronage, creating the Civil Service Commission to implement merit exams and making it illegal to fire, demote, or harass civil servants for political reasons. (In an interesting bit of trivia, George Pendleton, the Ohio Democrat who was author of the act, was showcased in Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln as a prime opponent of the 13th Amendment.)

The Pendleton Act started with a small share of federal jobs, but the proportions grew substantially over time, ultimately encompassing the vast majority of federal employees. Another reform, 1939's Hatch Act, enacted after a series of scandals involving the Works Progress Administration for involving employees in the 1938 congressional elections, provided additional protections against the involvement of most government employees in partisan political activities, as much to protect employees from undue pressure from their political superiors as to curtail political influence by government employees with power over citizens.

Why this basic history? I write it in part as reform of the Veterans Affairs Department moves through Congress, with as great a chance of successful enactment this year as any piece of legislation (of course, given the pathetic record of this Congress, that makes it no sure thing). The reform, which will likely resemble the Senate bill cosponsored by Bernie Sanders and John McCain, does some important, urgent, and necessary things, especially making sure that veterans who have waited for months or longer to see a VA doctor will have other immediate options in the private sector.

The reform also addresses what is clearly a pattern of gross mismanagement at the VA, both on the health-delivery side and on the side of processing disability claims. Therein lies the rub. The House bill, written by Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, did so by wiping out entirely any protection from firing or demotion for VA employees, instead treating them like congressional employees, who have political jobs and no civil-service protection. The Sanders/McCain bill is better, but not by much. It would give a fired employee seven days to file an appeal after getting a termination notice and having his or her pay stopped, and give an appeals board a deadline of three weeks after that to render a decision. The bill allows VA executives to stop paying employees they want to fire before the employees can find out what the reasons are or file an appeal.

In almost all cases, an appeal would be complex enough to require the employee to hire a lawyer, who would then have to talk to the client, get evidence together, write an appeal, and appear before the board. Lawyers who know anything about this field are in short supply—simply getting one within a week would be tough. Getting one who would drop everything to focus on a case would be nearly impossible (not to mention very expensive for the canned employee whose paychecks have already stopped.) And if the appeals board had to deal with large numbers of cases, it would be overtaxed and overwhelmed, and the appeals would not be heard in anything resembling a fair and thorough fashion.

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Norm Ornstein is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, a contributing editor and columnist for National Journal, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. More

Ornstein served as codirector of the AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project and participates in AEI's Election Watch series. He also serves as a senior counselor to the Continuity of Government Commission. Ornstein led a working group of scholars and practitioners that helped shape the law, known as McCain-Feingold, that reformed the campaign financing system. He was elected as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His many books include The Permanent Campaign and Its Future; The Broken Branch: How Congress Is Failing America and How to Get It Back on Track, with Thomas E. Mann; and, most recently the New York Times bestseller, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, also with Tom Mann.

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