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Keeping Politics in Its Place

THE Supreme Court's decision last week narrowing political patronage systems can be regarded as a victory for clean government, or as a gain for efficient government. Either way, it's welcome. In a case brought by several low-level state employees in Illinois, the court held that party affiliation cannot be the basis for hiring, promoting, or transferring most government workers. Partisan favoritism, the 5-4 majority said, violates public employees' rights of free speech and association. Previously the court had said only that public employees can't be fired for their party affiliation.

The court's ruling does not apply to upper-level civil servants, who, as policymakers and implementers, often need to be politically attuned to the elected officials they work for. But the court said party loyalty should not be a factor in job decisions affecting state employees whose duties are unrelated to their political beliefs. The successful plaintiffs included a rehabilitation counselor, a road-equipment operator, and an applicant to be a prison guard.

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Earlier civil service reforms largely eliminated the spoils system for federal employees. But patronage - the foundation of political ``machines'' - has continued to thrive at the state, county, and local level.

Traditionally, opposition to the spoils system has been based on concerns that patronage lends itself to incompetence and corruption in government. The public's business should not be conducted by party hacks or under-the-table palm greasers. This was not an issue in the Illinois case, decided on the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. But incompetence and corruption must always be guarded against.

Patronage also bloats government. Politicians have little incentive to streamline bureaucracy when they can fill slots with the party faithful. The demise of spoils systems may therefore make government leaner as well as cleaner.

By coincidence, the decision came down the day the Senate upheld President Bush's veto of a bill to weaken the Hatch Act, which limits political activism by federal workers. A good day for those who favor keeping politics out of the public work force.

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