The Merit Systems Protection Board: It’s Background & Purpose

There are a lot of federal agencies, and it can be easy to start getting them mixed up. But they all were created with a specific role in mind and sometimes that role is to protect the interests of federal employees. One such agency is the merit systems protection board (MSPB).

The merit systems protection board exists to make certain that laws intended to ensure our federal workforce is evaluated fairly and on merit rather than political connections, are upheld in the day-to-day life of the agency. The MSPB is the product of a long legislative history that goes back into the first part of the 19th century.

How the Merit System Developed

In the 1820s, President Andrew Jackson believed that the federal workforce was opposed to his agenda. His Administration began the process of firing federal workers and bringing in new ones, whose primary qualification was their connection to his campaign or the state political party.

Jackson and his supporters believed this would make government responsive to the will of the people, as expressed in their choice of the new president. Critics saw it as a way to essentially pay off those who supported the winning campaign.

In the midst of a debate over the practice, a Jackson-supporting senator, William L. Marcy of New York, told Jackson critic Henry Clay that “to the victor go the spoils”. The spoils, in this case, being the cache of jobs that were available in the federal government.

Marcy’s statement gave rise to a new term–henceforth, this methodology of staffing the government was called “the spoils system.”

Reformers Push for Change

Jackson’s successors in the White House did not hesitate to reward their own supporters with spoils. While there is certainly something to be said for democratically elected leadership being able to employ people who share like-minded goals, there was also a considerable problem.

A lot of jobs in the federal government are not intended to require a certain political outlook to do them well. We daresay that most people don’t care if their mail carrier is a Republican or a Democrat, so long as the mail gets there on time. The same goes for thousands of other jobs. The spoils system, even when done with good intentions, was making continuity, and the good performance that can come with it, impossible.

Furthermore, critics believed that the spoils system was often run with something less than the best intentions. That is, people were hired even if they were blatantly unsuited for the job. The spoils system was even becoming a hassle to the person it presumably benefitted the most–the President of the United States. Abraham Lincoln was heard to lament that it was difficult to get the work of the presidency done when he was constantly approached by job seekers.

By 1871, the ideas of the reformers were making headway with the public. The Civil Service Commission (CSC) was created. The CSC’s objective was to ensure that federal employees were hired and retained based on their qualifications for the role, not who they had voted for in the last election.

The CSC lagged in its early years, often lacking the authority and funding to do its job properly. Politicians who enjoyed controlling the spoils were loath to give over that authority without a fight.

Then in 1881, President James Garfield was assassinated. The assassin’s motive was his disgruntlement over not getting a federal job. The impetus for change got a renewed push.

Two years later, in 1883, the Pendleton Act was signed into law. The Pendleton Act allowed for competitive exams as a way to ensure federal employees were hired on their merits. The use of political affiliation at any point in the hiring or promotion process was banned.

The next major legislative effort in the area of federal employees came in 1978 with the Civil Service Reform Act. The law’s goals, broadly stated, were aimed at giving agency managers the space they needed to improve operations and productivity. But protection for federal employees was still a priority

It was in that 1978 Civil Service Reform Act that the MSPB was created

The Era of the Merit Systems Protection Board

The MSPB is run by three members, all of whom are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. It might seem ironic, and even strange, for political appointees, who will almost certainly be replaced when presidential administrations change, to oversee a board whose express purpose is to protect against such changes.

If you step back though, it’s a contradiction that can make sense. The reform of federal hiring, retention and promotion practices were not intended to completely eliminate political appointees. The original rationale used to justify the spoils system–that it allowed the voice of the people to be heard through their election of a new president–was not necessarily wrong.

No one suggests, for example, that Cabinet secretaries, not be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. In fact, there are still 4,000 roles in the federal government that a new president can staff with individuals of their choosing.

But the spoils system went much too far in the jobs that were subjected to the political process. The MSPB is the agency that today holds responsibility for ensuring that the vast majority of the nearly 1.9 million civilian employees who work in the federal government get judged professionally on their merits.

If you are a federal employee, this all means that you have rights. You have the right not to be asked for your political opinions or to be subjected to pressure in any way. You have the right to see your applications for a job and for promotions to be judged on the quality of your work and nothing else. At The Law Firm of John P. Mahoney, Esq., Attorneys at Law, PLLC, we are committed to fighting for those rights. We specialize specifically in cases involving federal workers and we can help you. Don’t hesitate to call us today at (202) 759-7780 or reach out online. We’ll set up an initial consultation and you can tell us what you’re going through.