Politics & Government
‘The Guardians of Process’
A now somewhat-forgotten president created America’s professional civil service in 1883 and, by extension, modern U.S. government. Since then, civil servants have flourished and grown more and more necessary, all in the face of never-ending aspersions.
There are no delegates right now on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates. This afternoon, it’s just Tricia Vaughan (B.A.’93), who isn’t a tour guide but has the knack. She would no doubt excel with a nametag, a tram and a magic kingdom.
Vaughan, who, while still an undergrad and studying English, started at the Virginia House of Delegates through a VCU cooperative program in 1992, is the longtime journal and records director of this 100-person assemblage. It is the lower house of the General Assembly, which, combined with the 40-person state Senate, forms Virginia’s legislature, frequently billed as the oldest continuous law-making body in the Western Hemisphere. Well-to-do Englishmen founded it three years after William Shakespeare died.
It’s early-ish December in downtown Richmond. The legislators are off until early-ish January. Construction is everywhere around the state Capitol, which makes getting to the state Capitol absolutely infuriating.
Vaughan’s mellow, though, remains unharshed — and not just because she gets to park in the official deck. “Mellow” is part of her job description (not expressly, but it’s implied). Vaughan is a civil servant. Her profession demands a persistent and apolitical coolness, and her profession is essential to the modern functioning of the federal, state and local governments of the United States.
“We kind of consider ourselves the guardians of process,” Vaughan says from her fourth-floor Capitol office, just before the jaunt around the House of Delegates on the second floor, where she knows everybody’s assigned seat.
Seniority gets a delegate the good desks in the back row (more aisle space) furthest from the dais, which is where Vaughan and her two full-time fellow record keepers, plus the House clerk, sit during every session for all 60 days (in even years) or all 46 days (in odd years).
“When we work downstairs, we keep things on track,” says Vaughan, referring to the House floor. “Like, ‘We have this, and you’re supposed to do this first, and you go through these ways of doing things’ and we make sure you’re doing it correctly and you’re doing it how it should be and within the rules of the House. That’s our role in it.
“Ideally, what we do you’d never think about because what we try to do is just make the process so smooth you don’t notice. All the bills are on the calendar, all bill jackets [the folders the bills are stored and transported in], the clerk’s ready to go — we just kind of facilitate the process. It’s important because if you have a bill that your legislator introduced — well, of course, you’d want a bill number on it. You want to have it accessible in [the Legislative Information System].” This is the website where anyone can read General Assembly bills (lis.virginia.gov). “But in terms of other things, we just try to make things smooth — make the process smooth for the members, for the clerk, for the speaker, just have it flow.”
Vaughan is bureaucrat classic, and that’s actually a wonderful thing — despite what a lot of people have claimed in the 140 years since Chester A. Arthur, our 21st president, signed the Pendleton Act, minting the professional civil service and creating the government we know and tolerate today.
“They are the people that make things go and make things work,” Bill Leighty (M.B.A.’79) says of civil servants, a group he knows well.
From 2002 to 2007, Leighty served as chief of staff for Virginia Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, who are now the state’s U.S. senators. He also served as director of the Virginia Retirement System and the deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Since 2019, Leighty has been the senior strategic adviser to the dean of VCU’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
“It’s one thing to have an idea and create a policy, whether it’s legislative or be it rulemaking,” Leighty says. “But somebody has to implement that policy, and that’s up to career civil servants to do that. They are protected from the political whims of the moment, and they are the ones in the meetings sitting there thinking, ‘We’ll be here when you get here, we’ll be here when you’re gone.’ They are the strength of any government.”
The Pendleton Act banned the old patronage/spoils system, an informal arrangement that since about the 1820s allowed — and tacitly encouraged — elected officials to give government jobs to their not-always-qualified friends, family and benefactors. Its outlawing enabled and undergirded America’s Progressive Era.
Without the Pendleton Act, named for Ohio Sen. George Pendleton, who served from 1879 to 1885, there would be no national parks, no Social Security, no Medicare, no food and housing assistance, no NASA, no public schools, no Veterans Affairs, no Smithsonian, no et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And perhaps no Tricia Vaughan, whose job predates the professional civil service — you might call record keepers and clerks among the first civil servants — and ensures the very basics of government (lawmaking) can happen.
“There is this huge federal bureaucracy now of professional federal workers who have civil service protections and cannot be, theoretically, punished for their political views or not carrying water for whichever party happens to be occupying the White House,” says Scott S. Greenberger, author of “The Unexpected President,” a biography of Chester A. Arthur. Greenberger’s also the executive director of Stateline, a website covering state and local policy across the country. “I think, in a way, Chester Arthur — who was mostly forgotten — with the Pendleton Act really laid the groundwork for these progressive presidents to come in and expand the federal role in American life, which we’ve all just sort of come to accept.”
Well, some of us.
Since the creation of the professional civil service, insurgent-esque anti-statists have used civil servants, often demeaned as “unelected,” en bloc to undermine government’s legitimacy to further other, less egalitarian agendas by besmirching state workers’ qualifications and character.
Today, you see this in the ongoing ado over the accepting of results of perfectly good elections — election officials have of late endured threats of harm and worse — and this winter’s establishing of a congressional subcommittee to investigate alleged government “weaponization.”
“Discrediting public faith in the competence and honesty of federal employees is a really, really powerful tool of conservatives,” says Landon Storrs, Ph.D., a historian at the University of Iowa and author of “The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left.” She specializes in 20th-century U.S. political and social policy. “Because if people are going to pay their taxes and follow [the rules of] whatever agency, they need to think the government can work. So you can either say government is inefficient or you can just prevent government from doing its work by tying it up in all these hearings and committees.”
Anti-statists, depending on the era, have occupied both extant major political parties. This especially parlous form of political attack really got going in the early 20th century in response to Theodore Roosevelt’s regulatory enthusiasms (all the trust-busting, food safety, conservation and what have you). Franklin Roosevelt expanded on his distant cousin’s big-government doings with the New Deal, which transformed the federal government into the so-called “insurance company with an army” that lumbers on today.
“The Pendleton Act absolutely led to all that, right?” Greenberger says. “It’s hard to imagine that Americans who have always had a suspicion of central government since the Revolution would have accepted [bureaucracy] if everyone knew that the people in the federal government were party hacks who were just there because they had given contributions to the party in power. The professionalization of the federal government, of the civil service, absolutely made the New Deal possible. You needed people in these jobs now, as the federal government expanded into more areas of American life, who actually knew what they were doing.”
“It’s one thing to have an idea and create a policy, whether it’s legislative or be it rulemaking. But somebody has to implement that policy, and that’s up to career civil servants to do that.”
As of 2020, federal, state and local governments in the U.S. employed almost 24 million people, according to the Brookings Institution. That’s more than 15% of the U.S workforce, Brookings says, making government America’s largest employer. (Walmart is the country’s biggest private employer and has, as of last year, about 1.7 million workers domestically and 2.3 million worldwide. Amazon is second, with about 1.5 million U.S. employees.)
Tricia Vaughan, who has been the Virginia House of Delegates’ journal and records keeper since 2005 and has worked full time in the House since 1993, is one of more than 700,000 people in Virginia employed by federal, state or local government. These individuals constitute about 18% percent of the state’s workforce.
“Some of the things,” Leighty says, “that I reflect on a lot now that I’m retired and spending more time attending funerals and business meetings is the absolute amazing nature of the civil servants in Virginia, and the true professionalism that’s there and the willingness to mentor others and bring along the next generation of civil servants as well.
“I would say that the thing that reminds me of the goodness of public service is the absolute standout individuals like Tricia that have been there over the years and have not just done their jobs but have influenced and created careers of those around them.”
And yet the anti-statists persist, vehemently. Among their grander achievements: relaxing some of those Progressive Era regulations, particularly the anti-monopoly ones.
These efforts coincide with the public’s declining faith in government. In 1958, according to Pew Research Center, 73% of Americans trusted the government to do what is right. In May 2022, it was 20%, and it hasn’t topped 30% since 2007, spiking at 60% after 9/11. Pew dates the start of our diminishing faith to the Vietnam War and Watergate, followed by the economic problems of the 1970s. The Washington, D.C.-based think tank notes, however, that trust in government tends to be higher among members of the party in power, but Democrats’ attitudes tend to be more consistent, regardless of who lives at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Pew also found last year that public confidence in career government employees declined 9 points since 2018, from 61% to 52%.
“It’s the old theme of distrust of centralized authority,” says Storrs, the historian from the University of Iowa. “The ideal of individualism has been very powerful in the United States. Americans have been taught that American individualism, which theoretically leaves individuals free and unfettered by the government in their pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, is what made America ‘great’ and would make it great again, if government just got out of the way.
“We want an independent civil service. We don’t have a ‘deep state,’ but we also don’t want a ‘sheep state.’ We don’t want federal employees to be just sycophants to whoever hired them. We want them to have some qualifications, and we want them to be able to give expert advice on whatever the issue is at hand, whether it’s sewer systems or aviation policy or regulating I-don’t-know-what monopoly. These are really complicated problems.”
Washington Post reporter Lisa Rein has covered government’s workings for more than a decade, specializing in what happens after laws pass and the legislators move on. Her beat is, in essence, the civil service.
“It’s the point where politics and policy meet and are implemented,” Rein says. “So much of what politicians do is guiding and directing federal agencies in how to implement what they want.”
Rein says civil servants can make beefy political targets because they’re bankrolled by taxpayers without, seemingly, being accountable to taxpayers — at least in a direct way. Suspicion flowers in the unknown.
There also is the perception that government workers have it easier than their private-sector friends because the jobs offer decent pay with regular raises, good benefits and security, she says. Storrs adds that civil servants also are largely faceless to the public, making them a convenient canvas for propaganda, conspiracy and animus.
“Yes, the civil service needs to be accountable,” Storrs says. “They have to follow rules they have, to be qualified, but we don’t want them getting fired at the whim of elected politicians. They need to be confident that they can share their expert opinion on what the best policy is without worrying whether the messenger is going to get shot.”
“We want an independent civil service. We don’t have a ‘deep state,’ but we also don’t want a ‘sheep state.’ We don’t want federal employees to be just sycophants to whoever hired them.”
This specific genre of civil servant suspicion boiled over in 1881 when then-Vice President Arthur, a portly Republican parvenu, abolitionist and sideburn auteur from Vermont, took over as president for the assassinated James Garfield.
Four months into Garfield’s presidency, a miffed votary named Charles Guiteau shot Garfield twice in a Washington, D.C., train station after being denied a position in the administration. Guiteau did not care for the doing-away-with of the spoils system — a policy idea that grew more and more alluring after the Civil War — and neither did a contingent of the late 19th-century GOP. These Republicans suspected the system’s demise might reduce their party’s power, which had thrived after the Civil War. (Most Democrats at the time were dismissed for their former and, in some cases, ongoing Confederate sympathies.)
The reformers, an ever-growing bulge in the Republican Party during Reconstruction, said the spoils system imperiled democracy, especially as America industrialized and blossomed bureaucratically. (The Freedmen’s Bureau, responsible for helping emancipated Blacks after the Civil War, is a pre-Pendleton Act example of a civic agency. It also was so thoroughly sabotaged by anti-statist sorts that the bureau survived only until 1872.) The country, ever-less provincial and ever-more technological, required competent, trained workers to run it.
The Republican status quo of the 1880s, led by Sen. Roscoe Conkling, who dominated New York politics and choreographed Arthur’s ascendance from customs official to vice president, countered that giving jobs to your buddies was, in fact, exceedingly democratic. He said it empowered officials to better enact the citizens’ will: The citizens picked me to pick for them.
“The idea was that political parties, whichever party was in power, were using federal employees to perpetuate their power instead of serving the public interest,” says Greenberger, the Arthur biographer. “As a result, they were filling the federal bureaucracy with people who were party loyalists and, in fact, required them to make campaign contributions, instead of [hiring] people who were actually qualified for the jobs.”
The Pendleton Act mandated, among its more important provisos, exams for government jobs, creating a merit-based hiring system. Today the Pendleton Act and its successors — 1939’s Hatch Act and 1978’s Civil Service Reform Act — protect almost all federal workers. Similar legislation protects state employees. In the Old Dominion, it’s the Virginia Personnel Act of 1950.
“I have now served, in one capacity or another, 12 governors, and different governors view [civil servants] differently,” Leighty says. “Some go to war with them, and some, especially the wise ones, realize they need the [civil servants] and they give them some direction, and [the civil servants] get a lot of stuff done for them. So I think more than anything else, career civil servants are there because they want to do good and they want to help people, and they are always grateful when they get some direction
Vaughan, as the Virginia House of Delegates journal and records keeper, says she doesn’t really think of herself as a civil servant, at least as an outsider might define one. She chooses a granular view of her job, focusing on her cog-and-widget role in the lawmaking process, aptly represented by the shelf behind her office desk. Ordered along the upper wall are grimoire-looking leather volumes recording the doings of General Assemblies past, recorded by Vaughan’s forebears, the doyens of the arcane.
Now, back on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates, mezzanined, carpeted and stately, Vaughan is in her magic kingdom. When the House is in session, she’s seated at the dais, running the voting board, processing bill amendments and just making sure all goes, more or less, as those well-to-do Englishmen intended in 1619.
“This is the history of the place,” Vaughan says. “It was here a long time before I was here, and it’ll be here a long time [after I’m gone]. But in my time here, I just hope that the process, as it’s going, just to continue that and shepherd things through. If somebody has a question about procedure, we hopefully have an answer.”