The Reform of the Consular Service.


OR many years various Chambers of Commerce as well as other organizations of business men have been urgently demanding a reform of our consular service. The reasons given for this demand are so justly and eloquently set forth in the last report of the United States Civil Service Commission that I can do no better than quote its language:

“Our consular service has attained to-day an importance far beyond that which it had in any previous period of our history. So long as our exports were confined to a few agricultural products, and we sold our manufactured goods mostly at home, the foreign consul was a man of comparatively little importance. But we have entered upon a new phase of our national career. We have become the foremost productive nation in the world. All other countries, even those of Europe, are full of undeveloped possibilities and enormous industrial changes are going on furnishing opportunities for the indefinite extension of our commerce. This is the time for America to seize the opportunities and to use its special genius for organization and invention in extending its industrial preeminence. A great deal has been done already with very imperfect governmental machinery and more highly developed individual initiative. — To maintain and increase our industrial prominence we ought to have by far the best consular service in the world. We should have the quickest and most reliable information as to our opportunities, as well as business representatives who are able to improve them. This can only be done by a consular service which is uniformly instructed and alert.

“Under our present system of patronage appointments there is little security that the men appointed are qualified for their duties. In some places, notably in important positions, in Great Britain, Germany, and other European countries, we have been fortunate enough to secure men not only of the highest natural capacity, but admirably equipped., and their consular reports have been a credit to the service and of immense value to our commerce. But in other positions, especially the smaller ones, the political removals and appointments which had been repeated every four years up to the time of the present administration, have made the term of the consul's service so short that, with the meagre pay allowed, first-class men cannot be secured. Very few of our consuls, either in South America or in the Orient, are acquainted with the language in which they are required to transact much of their business. In non-Christian countries, where consuls are charged with civil and criminal jurisdiction, and may not only try civil causes between Americans and foreigners but may sentence our citizens to fine, imprisonment, or even death, American consuls are not lawyers. Yet it is in many of the more remote and smaller places that the best opportunities exist for extending American commerce and furnishing facilities for American investments.

“Appointments to these places are often made for political reasons, and often on account of the needs rather than the qualifications of the men selected, but as the Committee on Foreign Relations states in its report for 1896, ‘To consider the offices merely as sources from which these partisan officeholders may derive four years of maintenance is as absurd as it would be to construct a navy to defend the country and to intrust its command to landsmen without experience for whom we might desire to provide a living and comfortable quarters.’ It is evident that a consular service thus selected is necessarily imperfect.”

Here we have the whole case in a nutshell: offices the performance of the important duties of which require special qualifications; and appointment to those offices, in great pasrt at least, made for reasons of political or personal favoritism, without any regard to those qualifications. It can certainly not be said that the United States Civil Service Commission has overdrawn the picture. On the contrary, every person of experience in such things knows that with every change of administration consulates are among active politicians in greater demand than any other class of offices — in fact they seem to have a peculiar charm for people's imagination; — that almost every politician of any degree thinks himself fit to be a consul; that innumerable applications for consulships are made on the mere ground of, or claims for, recognition as rewards for party service, and that in a multitude of cases the main object of the applicant — not seldom frankly avowed — is to spend some pleasant years abroad in a respectable social position sustained by government pay, or to live in a climate more favorable to his wife's delicate health, or to be in a place where his daughters can get good music lessons cheap, etc., etc. I have in my time, when connected with the national government, and even as a private citizen believed to have some influence, myself been approached for recommendations for appointments to consular offices, on such and similar grounds, innumerable times. And there can be no doubt that many appointments to consulships have been made for reasons no better than those I have mentioned.

That under such circumstances many unfit persons have found their way into the consular service, is not astonishing. Far more astonishing is it, that under such a system of selection the consular service has not become far more inefficient than we find it. For it must be admitted that while many lamentable failures are to be deplored, some of our consular officers have successfully mastered their duties and rendered the country excellent service. But it must be kept in mind that this has been the result of happy accident — accident that may well happen with a people of great mental alertness and adaptability — than of a rational and systematic method of selection; that it happened not because of, but in spite of, the absence of such a method; and that so long as consular offices are filled not on the ground of well ascertained merit and fitness, but as a matter of political or personal favoritism — of patronage — we shall never be able to count upon making our consular service what it ought to be.

Now, as to the remedy. The report justly says, that the best way to ascertain a man's qualification is to “examine him.” But it also, quite truthfully, sets forth that every attempt to do this, and to exclude the element of favoritism, of patronage, from the appointment of consuls by mere pass examinations has resulted in utter failure. Every such attempt, from the time of Seward to the time of Olney, was no doubt made in perfect good faith and with the best of intentions. But in every instance, the pass-examination designed to test the qualifications of candidates proposed by “influence,” gradually degenerated into a mere matter of form, and, as a rule, the candidate who hat the strongest influence behind him, got the place. And when that point was reached, the ghastly masquerade of the pass-examination was either altogether abandoned, or it was for a time continued, to be despised and made fun of. Nothing can be more self evident to any man of experience than that, as the Civil Service Commission expresses it, “It is to the competitive system, which has so greatly improved the other parts of the service, that we must look for the permanent betterment of the consular branch.” To give practical effect to this sentiment, the Commission then urges upon the President the supreme importance of earnestly recommending to Congress the enactment of a law furnishing facilities for determining the comparative qualifications of applicants for the consular service by means of open, competitive, non-partisan examinations. And in response, the President in his recent message briefly refers to the subject in saying: “It is much to be desired that our consular system be established by law on a basis providing for appointment and promotion only in consequence of proved fitness.”

Attempts at legislation to reform the consular service have actually been made. There are now two bills pending in Congress, both of which have great merit — one introduced by Senator Lodge of the Senate, the other by Mr. Burton in the House of Representatives. The Lodge bill creates certain fixed grades in the consular service, according to salaries, and prescribes the number of positions to be included in each grade. It provides that the President, within one year after the passage of the act, shall classify the various consulates-general and consulates in accordance with the grades so established, and that the present incumbents shall be gradually recalled for examination within two years, and re-admitted to the grades they occupy, on passing a prescribed examination, and that any one failing to pass such examination shall be dropped from the service. It provides further, for the interchange of positions in the same grade, by order of the President, without renomination to the Senate of the individual officer, so that in future a consul when nominated for original appointment to the Senate shall be nominated for the grade, and not for any particular place. It provides that vacancies in the higher grades shall be filled by promotion from the lower — although such promotions would probably require confirmation by the Senate. It creates an examining board, to consist of the Assistant Secretary of State, or such person in the Department of State as the President shall designate, one Consul General or Consul, and a further officer of the State Department whom the President shall select. This board is to hold examinations for the lowest grade — the sixth — and to that grade alone appointments shall be made from the eligible list of those passing. The board shall, for each vacancy, certify the names of the five applicants who have passed the examination with the highest credit, such certification to be accompanied by a detailed report showing the qualifications of each person certified. It provides, finally, for the readmission, under certain conditions, of persons separated from the service without fault or delinquency on their part, and also for the transfer, without examination, from the Department of State to the consular service, or from the consular service to the Department of State, of persons in a corresponding grade who have served for two years. There are no provisions with reference to removals.

The Burton bill provides likewise for a fixed classification and for original appointments to the sixth, or lowest, grade. It sets forth in detail the subjects of the examinations to be held for appointment to ordinary consulates, as well as to consulates that exercise and extra-territorial jurisdiction. The examining board is, however, to consist of the Secretary of State, or such person in the Department of State as the President shall designate, in conjunction with the Civil Service Commission — a provision which, I may remark by the way, seems to me preferable to that contained in the Lodge bill, for the reason that, to guard against the intrusion of influence the examining board should, as far as considerations of efficiency permit, be independent of the appointing power. The provisions regarding the recall of present incumbents for a qualifying examination, and the certification of five names for single appointments, and various other details, are the same as those in the Lodge bill. But the Burton bill finally provides that, after service of twelve months, “no consul shall be dismissed from the service except for due cause presented to him in writing, and he shall have power to defend himself from such charges as may be brought against him, and the board of three persons who shall be appointed by the President, from the consular service or from the Department of State, or both, shall weigh the charges brought against him, and his defence, if any, and may summon and examine witnesses.”

It is not my purpose to discuss the various features of these two bills further than to say that while they might, perhaps, in this or that particular point be strengthened by amendment, the contain very valuable provisions — I mean not only the essential requirement of full competition, but also the appointment to grade instead of localities, the promotion from lower to higher grade, the facilities opened for the transfer of consular offices from one place to another, and from consular to State-department service and vice versa — and so on — and that if either of them, even as it stands, were enacted into law and faithfully executed with a single eye to the public interest, the character and efficiency of our consular service would be greatly advanced.

But, I regret to say, we have to admit the fact that so far the efforts made to secure a reform of the consular service in the way indicated by these bills have not met with enough of favor in either house of Congress to warrant any sanguine hope of success. The strongest argument brought forth against the bills is that they are unconstitutional, inasmuch as they would limit the power of the President, given him by the Constitution, to “nominate, and by and with the consent of the Senate, appoint ambassadors, and other public ministers, and consuls,” etc. I will not argue the question whether a law making the appointment of a certain class of officers dependent upon certain qualifications or requirements, would be in reality a violation of the constitutional provision; but I think I am not going too far when I say that even if in some way the constitutional objections were overcome, the opposition in Congress to either of those bills or to any other measure providing for subjecting consular appointments to competitive examinations would continue in full vigor, for the simple reason that this sort of reform would curtail the patronage which is claimed by Senators and Representatives as one of the most valuable and cherished perquisites of their offices. It may not be complimentary to our law-makers, but I assert that no fair-minded person can study the debates and the action of the two houses of Congress on matters touching appointments to office, without arriving at the conclusion that the patronage consideration, however it may be disguised, is an exceedingly potent one in the average Congressional mind, and that the idea of filching the juicy consular plums from his control strongly offends the ordinary Congressman's feelings as something especially wicked and un-American.

I see reason to fear, therefore, that the prospect of obtaining such legislation as the Civil Service Commission so eloquently ask for, and as the President in his message declares desirable, is by no means bright. It is reported, in the press, that Senator Lodge intends to attach his reform bill at the present session of Congress to an appropriation bill for the consular and diplomatic service and thus to press its passage. We certainly wish him success, but that success, I regret to say, is at least very doubtful. He will certainly find great obstacles in his path, and we have to contemplate the chance of defeat.

But if this effort, and other efforts to obtain the desired legislation should fail, must we therefore despair of accomplishing the reform of the consular service? By no means, for the principal part of that reform, the introduction of the competitive merit system for the filling of consular offices, can be compassed without any legislation by Congress. It is simply in the hand of the President alone. He can say: “The Constitution confers upon me the power and the duty to nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, appoint consuls. The business of nominating — of selecting suitable persons for examination — rests with me. I consider it my duty to select for nomination the fittest persons I can find. According to my experience, the best available means to ascertain the fitness of candidates, and, as a general rule, to discover the fittest, is the open competitive examination. I, therefore, for my own guidance and convenience, to aid me in the performance of my duty to select the fittest persons for nomination, order that applicants for consular positions go before an examining board, designated by me, to be examined in competition with others, and that the examining board certify to me the three, or five (as the case may be) candidates who have passed the examination with the highest credit; and from the list so certified to me I shall select the person to be nominated. I shall also make my selections for nomination for the higher consular offices to be filled, from the incumbents of consulates of a lower grade by way of promotion.”

If the President does this there will be no constitutional question as to an encroachment upon his powers, for he does it of his own free will. It will be his way of exercising his powers and of performing his duties. This action will stand above all constitutional cavil. It is true, the President can only nominate, and his nominations will be subject to confirmation by the Senate. It may be said that many Senators, perhaps a majority of them, may dislike this method of making nominations, refuse to confirm nominations so made, and thus defeat the whole system. If this be so, the same majority would certainly also refuse their assent to a bill providing for the making of nominations in just that way. Consequently, if the President were to abstain from introducing the competitive system for this branch of the service on the ground that the Senate might systematically reject nominations so made, it would be equivalent to giving up the whole effort at reform as impracticable.

It is, however, more probable that if such a system adopted by the President of his own motion be absolutely impartial in its working, and so designed and conducted as to respond to the very general popular demand for a real reform of the consular service, Senators would not venture to balk its operation for patronage reasons very long. The President could take issue with the Senate on that point before the public opinion with an immense moral superiority on his side. It is even possible that such a system, if properly established at the beginning and thus strongly commending itself to popular favor, might continue itself from administration to administration, not only as a thing righteous and beneficial in itself but also as good politics.

Nor would such action on the part of the Executive be without precedent. I refer not only to the increasing number of cases in which the President, deviating from what was formerly the customary way of filling places, has made many excellent appointments by transfers and promotions within the diplomatic and the consular service — and it is certainly not this class of appointments that has been found fault with; but I also call to mind what happened in 1877, when the then President, without any mandatory law behind him, of his own motion introduced the competitive merit system in the Custom House and the Postoffice in New York, as it was also introduced in at least one of the government departments in Washington. It is true, this action displeased many members of the Senate and of the House of Representatives, and it was fiercely assailed and denounced at the time. But it was maintained with quiet firmness and has borne good fruit. Thus it is not unreasonable to hope for an effective reform of the consular service, even if present attempts at legislation fail.

From Proceedings at the annual meeting of The National Civil-Service Reform League, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 11 and 12, 1902, pp. 104-111.