But horrified by the assassination, Arthur abandoned his support for the spoils system and championed reform. The result was the Pendleton Act of 1883, which established the principle that government jobs should be awarded on the basis of merit, not patronage, creating the Civil Service Commission to implement merit exams and making it illegal to fire, demote, or harass civil servants for political reasons. (In an interesting bit of trivia, George Pendleton, the Ohio Democrat who was author of the act, was showcased in Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln as a prime opponent of the 13th Amendment.)

The Pendleton Act started with a small share of federal jobs, but the proportions grew substantially over time, ultimately encompassing the vast majority of federal employees. Another reform, 1939’s Hatch Act, enacted after a series of scandals involving the Works Progress Administration for involving employees in the 1938 congressional elections, provided additional protections against the involvement of most government employees in partisan political activities, as much to protect employees from undue pressure from their political superiors as to curtail political influence by government employees with power over citizens.

Why this basic history? I write it in part as reform of the Veterans Affairs Department moves through Congress, with as great a chance of successful enactment this year as any piece of legislation (of course, given the pathetic record of this Congress, that makes it no sure thing). The reform, which will likely resemble the Senate bill cosponsored by Bernie Sanders and John McCain, does some important, urgent, and necessary things, especially making sure that veterans who have waited for months or longer to see a VA doctor will have other immediate options in the private sector.