How did the adoption of civil service reform in the United States affect reelection rates of legislators? In a CDDRL research seminar series talk, Miriam Golden — the Peter Mair Chair in Comparative Politics at the European University Institute and CDDRL visiting scholar — argued that a decline in patronage appointments to state bureaucracies due to civil service legislation increased reelection rates in state legislatures.
Civil service legislation in the United States began with the federal Pendleton Act in 1883 and continued with a series of staggered reforms at the state level. These reforms mandated that political appointments be made on the basis of merit, thereby limiting the ability of party machines to make patronage appointments to the bureaucracy. By 1987, every state (except for Texas) had adopted these measures. Golden’s work investigates the spillover effects of this legislation on the careers of politicians.
The phenomenon of the “amateur politician” was prevalent for a good part of US history, especially at the state level. Operating under a patronage system, politicians did not face a strong incentive to seek reelection. However, following the introduction of civil service legislation, parties could no longer rotate their own cadre of loyalists through appointed and elected state offices. As such, the incentive for politicians to seek reelection increased, creating a more professional class of legislators concerned with elevating their own performance in office.
This theory is consistent with Golden’s analysis of state legislator data covering the period between 1900 and 2016. Using a series of difference in difference estimators, Golden explored the effect of staggered reforms on reelection rates across all 50 state legislatures. Her analysis shows that the said reforms are associated with higher reelection rates. While reelection rates had already begun trending upward over the course of the 20th century, civil service reform coincided with the largest single surge in reelection rates yet observed.
Golden found that across all the states under study, the rate of legislators seeking reelection and reelection rates track together. The data also suggests that individuals who were in office before the introduction of civil service reforms were driven out at slightly higher rates than those who served after. The trend is consistent with the idea that pre-reform legislators were replaced by a more professional class of politicians.