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Despite the centrality of merit principles to governance in the United States over the past century, scant empirical research examines linkages between institutions, and outcomes in the implementation of merit system protections. We argue that the fate of merit principles depends, at a minimum, on two influences that may compete with neutral competence. The first is partisan responsiveness by counter bureaucracies charged with holding agencies accountable to merit principles. The second influence is the sacrifice of merit in the interest of managerial rerogatives at the agency level. This exploratory study assesses both of these influences within the federal government. Our data consist of personal interviews, analyses of U.S. Merit System Protection Board (MSPB) processes, case loads, and decisions between fiscal years 1988 and 1997, and a brief case study of the Justice Department. We find that the MSPB is largely the neutral and competent agency that Congress intended to create when it enacted the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Less positively, our analysis also reveals that federal agencies vary in how well their personnel actions fare with the MSPB. This finding is especially germane to reinventing-government reforms that decentralize personnel management to agencies or to line operators within agencies.