Cal State-San Bernardino history professor Richard Samuelson takes on “tenured partisans” in a column for National Review Online.

How did we get here? With the rise of the Second Party System in 19th-century America came the spoils system, replacing the quasi-aristocratic republican old-boys’ network that had upheld the ideal of the gentleman as public servant. After a deranged office seeker assassinated President Garfield, the United States began to embrace the ideal of a non-partisan and professional civil service. Government employees began to be hired for their professional competence, determined by tests, rather than for party connections. Once hired, these government workers would be given civil-service protections — tenure as a security against partisan pressure. The goal was also to ensure that citizens voted for a candidate because he would pursue good policies, not because their idiot brother-in-law would get a job if their guy won.

Today we have the worst of both worlds: a tenured and partisan civil service. Government employees have civil-service protection and are seldom fired, only for the most egregious of crimes. Yet they lean to one party. From 1989 to 2012, two-thirds of donations from IRS employees, for example, went to Democrats. Even so, our civil servants seem to think that they are politically neutral. Hence the employees at the VA think it is reasonable to spy on (presumptively partisan) congressional investigators, and hard drives mysteriously get destroyed in the IRS scandal. Laws are for the little people, as Glenn Reynolds likes to say.

The rise of the “fourth branch” of government — the administrative bureaucracy — complicates things further. Obamacare was roughly 2,000 pages long when Congress passed it. Bureaucrats have added thousands more. The Hobby Lobby case was about a rule written by bureaucrats, not by Congress. In fact, Congress probably would never have passed such a law. Worse, our tenured partisans sometimes delegate their jobs to activists. Who drafted the EPA’s new greenhouse regulations? The National Resources Defense Council.

Nowadays, in other words, laws are, in effect, written, interpreted, and enforced by the bureaucratic equivalent of made men who are quite well paid. So much for checks and balances. Moreover, our legal code is so complicated that, as Harvey Silverglate notes, most businesses or individuals are probably guilty of breaking some law somewhere. That puts each of us at the mercy of the government.

Those interested in how these “tenured partisans” preserve their sinecures within the federal government might want to read Jim Geraghty’s new novel, The Weed Agency. Geraghty is scheduled to address the John Locke Foundation’s Shaftesbury Society one week from today.