The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2023

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2023 17 SPEAKING OUT Schedule F: Let’s Deprofessionalize Government and Make America Irrelevant Again BY DENN I S J ETT Dennis Jett served as U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and on assignments in Argentina, Israel, Malawi, and Liberia during his 28-year Foreign Service career. He is a professor of international affairs at Penn State University and the author of American Ambassadors: A Guide for Aspiring Diplomats and Foreign Service Officers (2nd ed., Palgrave Macmillan, 2022). T he 20th president of the United States had been in office only four months when he was shot by an assassin. He would no doubt be astounded if he knew that what his death helped accomplish may be undone in the 21st century. That would be the effect of Republican efforts to vastly increase the number of political appointees in government and gut the protections for civil servants against being fired for purely political reasons. A bill sponsored by Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.) would help prevent that, but as of late November, it remains to be seen whether it will be enacted. A little history helps explain why this matters and why such efforts would return American government to a 19th- century level of competence and capa- bility. When James A. Garfield moved into the White House in 1881, the federal government operated almost entirely on a system of patronage. Anyone who helped get the president elected could line up for a cabinet position, a diplo- matic posting, or any other federal job, because they were all up for grabs. One of those in that line was Charles Guiteau. He asked to be named minister in Austria (that was the highest rank in an embassy; it would be another dozen years before the first American diplomat was given the title of ambassador). When that request was rejected, he said he would settle for vice consul in Paris. At that point, tired of his pleading, Secretary of State James G. Blaine told him he would get nothing because he had done nothing to help Garfield get elected. Not taking rejection lightly, Guiteau stalked Garfield until he found him in Washington waiting to board a train. Since presidents went around without any security at that time, it was easy for Guiteau to walk up to Garfield and shoot him twice. Today, the wounds would have been serious but not life threaten- ing. Thanks to the limits of 19th-century medicine, however, Garfield’s slow and painful death came two months later. The murder of the president by a patronage seeker prompted Congress to act on reforming the government’s hiring practices. That, plus the realiza- tion that as America increasingly began to play a significant role on the world stage, it needed a government capable of supporting the country’s ambitions and interests. It needed professionals. The Pendleton Act The result was passage of the Pendle- ton Act, which set up a system in which civil servants were hired after competi- tive exams and promoted on the basis of merit. Once employed, they also had the prospect of having a career in govern- ment, which provided an incentive to stay in its service. The other reason for reformwas the fact that filling all the jobs had become too big a burden. During the 19th century, the number of federal employees grew dramatically from fewer than 20,000 to more than 130,000. Industrialization and increasing international trade required having bureaucrats with specialized skills. The Pendleton Act covered only about 10 percent of the federal workforce, but it was a start. The act did not, however, cover the diplomatic service. A couple decades later, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft saw the need for the same standards to be applied to diplomats. In 1912, President Taft explained the importance of that in his State of the Union report. (At that point, most presidents provided a written document to Congress rather than giving a speech before it, so the following does not read like a series of applause lines.) Taft wrote: “At the beginning of the present administration the United States, having fully entered upon its position as a world power, with the responsibili- ties thrust upon it by the results of the