Principles of Politics Exercise

Goals of This Exercise

  • Illustrate the historical decline of presidential control over executive branch appointments and personnel.
  • Demonstrate how rule and procedural changes in executive branch hiring decisions caused this loss of control over time.
  • Examine how a decline in presidential control in executive hiring might affect presidential control over bureaucracy.

Political Appointment versus Merit Selection in the Executive Branch

Political Appointment

  • Employees selected based on politics and party loyalty
  • Politically associated with president
  • Easily controlled by president
  • The spoils system

Merit Selection

  • Employees selected based on skills and qualifications
  • Take civil service exam
  • Immune or insulated from political control
  • Civil service (merit system)

Examining the Rationality Principle

The Rationality Principle: all political behavior has a purpose. All political actors engage in instrumental acts designed to further their individual goals.

  • The goals of bureaucrats and the president differ in important respects.
  • Bureaucrats seek to further the mission of their agency and to maximize its budget.
  • For the president, the task of democratic control of the bureaucracy is to impose his or her goals on the bureaucracy to the greatest extent possible.
  • The conflict among these goals leads to a struggle over autonomy between the president and his or her political appointees, on the one hand, and merit-protected bureaucrats, on the other hand.

Examining the Policy Principle

The Policy Principle: political outcomes are the products of individual preferences and institutional procedures.

  • The rules and procedures by which federal employees are selected (i.e., rules promoting a spoils system versus rules promoting a merit system) matter in determining whether the president or the bureaucracy wins in the struggle over autonomy.
  • When the president has greater control over selecting bureaucrats, he or she is more likely able to impose his or her preferences over bureaucrats. When bureaucrats owe their position only to their “merit” and are insulated from political pressure, they have greater autonomy to pursue their own goals.

Historical Stages of Appointment

Stage 1: The spoils system was originally instituted as a democratic reform during the Jacksonian era to provide for “rotation in office” that would make national government more representative of the rest of the country.

Stage 2: Nepotism, favoritism, and corruption of the spoils system led to calls for yet more reform. This time reformers wanted to institute a civil service system; although it would make the government less representative, it would also make the government more professional.

Stage 3: The Pendleton Act (1883) instituted a civil service (or merit) system in some national government hiring.

Stage 4: From the late nineteenth century to the 1960s, more and more of national government employees were selected by merit.

Stage 5: Attempts are made to once again gain greater democratic and political control over the federal bureaucracy. After the 1970s new politically-appointed positions were increasingly added to the federal workforce.

Percentage of Civilian Employees 1820-1971

Analyzing Executive Appointments

Examining the graph and the various stages (1–5) of appointment politics, answer the following questions:

The Advent of Merit Selection

1. What new “rule” caused the jump in the percentage of merit-selected federal employees in the decade between 1881 and 1891?
What happened to merit selection between 1881 and 1921?
3. How did these changes in rules and procedures allow simultaneously for greater bureaucratic autonomy in the pursuit of their goals and a decline in the president’s ability to control the bureaucracy?

Increasing Presidential Control

In the 1960s, there was a significant increase in the number of federal employees in Senior Executive Service (SES) positions, who were politically appointed rather than selected based on merit.

Throughout much of the twentieth century, presidents expanded the politically-appointed White House staff and increasingly turned to their staff rather than to the Cabinet or the bureaucracy for policy development and some implementation.

One Step Further…

Examining the figure and the various stages (1–5) of appointment politics, answer the following questions:

4. What is the President’s likely aim in sprinkling SES personnel throughout the federal bureaucracy?
What advantages accrue to the president in his or her struggle with the bureaucracy for autonomy by increasingly using the White House staff rather than the merit-selected bureaucracy?
6. In what ways do these changes amount to at least a partial return of the spoils system?


  • Milkis, Sidney. The President and the Parties. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Rourke, Francis E., “Presidentializing the Bureaucracy: From Kennedy to Reagan.” In James P. Pfiffner, ed., The Managerial Presidency. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1991.
  • Stanley, Harold W., and Richard G. Niemi. Vital Statistics in American Politics. 5th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1995.

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