The Republican Spoils System
The bill to kill civil service aims to create a one-party government, from top to bottom.
Wisconsin was a national leader in civil service reform, in 1905 becoming the third state to establish a merit principle for hiring employees. The idea behind the law was not about entitling public employees, but about protecting all citizens by assuring that anyone — not just party loyalists — could apply for a government job. It was about ending the old Tammany Hall-style patronage in which politicians rewarded their party’s supporters with jobs and left taxpayers paying for less-qualified employees and second-rate government services.
The slogan used back in 1905 was that “The Best Shall Serve the State.” To ensure this happened, the system provided an objective system for hiring, promotion, evaluation, and firing of public employees. Positions were filled competitively to get the best possible person for each job.
Since the system was created in Wisconsin, 26 governors, including 17 Republicans, have held office, and none have sought to overturn it. Now, after the system has been in place 110 years, Gov. Scott Walker wants to throw out civil service. Yes, the proposed bill is being billed as a reform, but its real intent is to kill civil service.
It’s always a tipoff when the people proposing the change want to keep it secret. Back in June, we learned that Walker administration officials “told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel multiple times that they weren’t looking to change the state’s century-old system for placing qualified workers in public service and weeding out partisan hacks.” But the newspaper made public record requests and found that members of the Walker administration were discussing changing the civil service system. Then-Secretary of the Department of Administration DOA) Mike Huebsch had requested information from Tennessee, which had passed a law overhauling civil service.
The first step toward killing civil service was included in last summer’s biennial budget, which replaced the Office of State Employment Relations with a new Division of Personnel within DOA, the’s state’s most political department. The head of both that division and the Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection, which administers the civil service exam, are now appointed by the DOA secretary, rather than selected through a competitive civil service exam. They have effectively become political appointees.
Next comes the proposed reform bill, championed by Republican state Sen. Roger Roth and GOP Majority Leader Jim Steineke, which they’ve called “a plan to update Wisconsin’s civil service law.” It’s modeled on the Tennessee law.
The two legislators have offered little or no evidence that current state departments fail to hire the best people for the job or that state departments now provide poor service, which is the essential goal of civil service. Rather they have talked about modernizing the system to be more efficient like the private sector.
They have suggested civil service entrance exams for hiring employees are “flawed,” without explaining how. But the exams were always created by the Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection (now disbanded) in conjunction with departments doing the hiring. Why can’t the tests simply be rewritten, supporters of the system have asked.
Roth and Steineke have suggested applicants are able to “easily manipulate” exams, again without any explanation. But as Troy Bauch, staff representative for AFSCME Council 32 (which represents state employees) puts it, “If there is any problem, why wouldn’t they identify it and remedy it?”
They have suggested the civil service exam will be replaced by a “blindly scored resume process.” But how can someone review a resume without seeing if the applicant has held positions connected to Republican causes or organizations or individuals? “It will be a completely subjective review,” Bauch says. “It’s going to come down to cronyism, nepotism, favoritism, friendships.” If there is nothing to stop the party in power from hiring their friends, that’s what they will do, as American history has proven.
In the old system, Bauch explains, the top-scoring candidates testing for a job at, say, the Columbia correctional system would then be interviewed by an interim panel set up by the prison’s leaders. “It really does bring the best and brightest applicants into the system.”
Under the new system, all applicants for positions in any departments (and state government is huge) would all go through DOA. “The sheer number of applicants coming into one funnel will be huge,” Bauch says. And the politicians at DOA, rather than the experts at various state departments, who know their department’s needs, will make the decisions.
Roth and Steinke have argued the new process will be faster and more like the private sector. But as Bauch notes, the private sector isn’t driven by politics and simply hires based on driving revenue and profits. “Public service is not the same, because of partisanship.” Governments are run by politicians who will inevitably choose applicants based on political considerations, unless there is a system in place to prevent that from happening.
Susan McMurray, lobbyist for AFSCME Council 32, says she was told by Republican staffers that the impetus for this new law came from department managers who want to get rid of “troublesome” employees. Back when Act 10 was passed Walker stressed that without unions employees would still be protected by civil service rules. Not any more.
Bauch says he’s already seeing many hiring decisions made based on politics. “Well-connected Republicans are ascending and Democrats are descending. I’ve never seen anything like this in the 21 years I’ve been in this position.” Long-term this will lead to one-party government.
If you think this is an extreme view, consider what the Republicans have done to date. Redistricted legislative districts to assure Republicans can win a majority of seats with a minority of votes. Eliminated public unions, the most important support for Democrats in Wisconsin. Proposed a law to eliminate public records, so there is no scrutiny of the Republican officials who hold nearly every important state office. (And they have not given up on this effort.) Proposed a law to decimate the Government Accountability Board, which is currently run by a board with a majority of Republicans, but was considered not friendly enough to the party.
As the British baron Lord Acton once put it, “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We are seeing that maxim in action in Wisconsin, to the utter detriment of democracy.