Republican Lawmakers Demonstrate An Old Adage

Feb 6, 2013

Michael Bitzer
Credit WFAE

Back in 1831, U.S. Senator William Macy coined the phrase “to the victor go the spoils. In a war or other contest, the winner gets the booty.” In our modern times, “other contests” can be thought of as election contests just as easily. 

With the recent legislation by Republicans in the NC State Senate to strip clean a significant number of state commissions and boards, the saying about “elections having consequences” is as important as the spoils going to the victor. 

It’s not unusual, certainly, to have the victors lay claim to their “booty.” In fact, it was the dominant process for a significant period in the nation’s early history.

Coming to rise with the presidential ascendency of Andrew Jackson, hand-picked supporters were rewarded with governmental positions in the federal bureaucracy.  When it came to getting a government job, it wasn’t expertise, knowledge, or experience that mattered; instead, it was loyalty, and in particular, partisan loyalty to the party in power. 

But when a loyal supporter felt he had been slighted by President James A. Garfield for a coveted position and shot the president, the belief of separating partisanship from administration began a long journey to creating an impartial and non-partisan federal public service sector.

But one can never truly wipe away the tint of partisanship, even within the bureaucracy, and the ability to influence the governing boards and commissions of agencies and policy areas in state governments remain a powerful component of the modern spoils system.

Granted, as President Jackson envisioned the bloated bureaucracy, he defended the right of chief executives to remove individuals from governmental positions to restore the public virtue, as the winner saw it. 

What makes this Tar Heel take is the literal sweeping of the deck and restocking numerous commissions and boards with fresh new faces—all of them intended to be friendly faces to the party in power.

Retribution is a power tool that is truly bipartisan.  Some North Carolina Republicans still rue the day when, in 1989, then newly-elected Republican Lieutenant Governor James Gardner was summarily stripped of his job’s power by a Democratically-controlled state senate. 

That power was later invested in the position of Senate president pro tempore Marc Basnight, who would rule the senate with what some called an iron fist for more than 20 years.

Memories last long in politics, and when payback arrives, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. 

It’s just when you’re getting kicked by the same shoe that you had worn before, the feeling isn’t as grand. 

And for 119 appointees and 12 superior court judges targeted by the GOP in this house-cleaning, that shoe feels mighty stiff.