There are two types of bureaucrats in the federal bureaucracy: political appointees and civil servants.
The president can appoint approximately 2,000 people to top positions within the federal bureaucracy. These people are known as political appointees.
The president usually receives nominations and suggestions from party officials, political allies, close advisers, academics, and business leaders on whom to appoint to bureaucratic offices. Sometimes the president appoints loyal political allies to key positions, particularly ambassadorships. This tradition is referred to as the spoils system or simply patronage.
In the late nineteenth century, members of the Progressive Party argued that most government jobs should be filled with skilled experts, not unskilled political appointees. In other words, they argued that competence rather than political loyalty should determine who holds these jobs. The civil service consists of the federal employees hired for their knowledge and experience, and it constitutes most of the federal bureaucracy.
For much of the nineteenth century, presidents routinely hired political supporters to work in the bureaucracy. Over time, the federal bureaucracy became corrupt and inept, leading to calls for reform. In 1883, Congress passed the Pendleton Act (also called the Civil Service Reform Act), which put limits on the spoils system for the first time. The act also created the Civil Service Commission, the first central personnel agency for the federal government. At first, civil service rules applied to only about 10 percent of federal employees, but since then Congress has expanded the civil service, so that it now encompasses about 90 percent of the bureaucracy.
President Jimmy Carter’s Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 reformed and clarified the rules of the civil service. The law created the Office of Personnel Management to replace the Civil Service Commission, and it also established the Merit Systems Protection Board to hear complaints from employees about violations of the rules.
All civil servant applicants must pass an exam that measures skills related to the particular civil service position they hope to fill. Some civil service exams are general and apply to a wide range of jobs, whereas others are focused on a particular type of job. The civil service uses the merit system, meaning that it hires and promotes civil servants based on their technical skills. Most civil servants are also protected from political pressure. The best example of this protection is the fact that it is extremely difficult to fire civil servants. In theory, this job security prevents politicians from firing those who disagree with them. In practice, however, it makes it hard to fire incompetent employees.