Behind the growing controversy over "filegate" lie enduring questions about the people presidents appoint to sensitive government posts.
The news that a low-ranking administration staffer used White House letterhead to request confidential FBI background files on hundreds of Republicans shows how easily the prestige of the presidency can be abused.
Whether the file requests were the result of a "bureaucratic snafu," as the White House claims, or a political fishing expedition, as Republicans assert, the incident points up a perennial conundrum: How to balance the tradition of giving friends and political loyalists plum administration jobs with the larger government goal of honest and efficient public service.
When a new president installs his own people, says Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University, factors like loyalty, ideology, and partisanship tend to outweigh more-usual employment criteria like competence. The result, he says, is an executive branch filled with the least efficacious types of workers: "young people in high positions who have intense loyalty, but no experience."
One apparent example is Craig Livingstone. Mr. Livingstone, whose name has become synonymous with "filegate," was placed on indefinite leave last week as director of the White House Office of Personnel Security.
Clinton aides admit that Livingstone's one time deputy, Anthony Marceca, reviewed about 400 confidential background files on former White House passholders - many prominent Republicans who had not set foot in the mansion in years. Both Livingstone and Mr. Marceca have long careers in Democratic politics and little or no experience in personnel or security.
Their review of the files, inadvertent or not, casts doubt on the competence and integrity of campaign loyalists working in lofty government positions.
Under current practice, a new president is allowed to make 3,000 high-level political appointments, a number that has remained more or less constant over the years. The rest of the government's 2.1 million nonmilitary workers are meant to be hired on the basis of merit.
But observers say the Clinton administration painted itself into a corner with regard to political appointments during the campaign. Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that candidate Clinton vowed to reduce the White House staff by 25 percent if elected - a promise that, when fulfilled, reduced the spaces available in the administration for political cronies.
This had two side effects. First, Mr. Ornstein says, the pressure to install friends led the administration to dump many veteran nonpartisan workers, like the employees in the White House Travel Office, who had survived several presidencies and knew internal customs and procedures.
The second problem, Mr. Wayne says, was that pressure to place campaign stalwarts in the administration forced President Clinton to mine cabinet agencies for every possible political job, often appointing undersecretaries and chiefs of staff himself - rather than leaving the work to cabinet secretaries. The result, he notes, is the slowest transition in modern memory, which left many agencies coasting for months on auto-pilot.
Not only do federal agencies shift course every time a new president takes power, Wayne says, but the average tenure of political appointees is shockingly low, about 18 months. The result, he says, is a lack of continuity and informed leadership that hampers the ability of agencies to understand the needs of their constituencies.
But the most immediate lesson of the "filegate" controversy is the danger of placing inexperienced political workers in sensitive posts. Soon after the president's inauguration, jokes abounded about the fresh-from-college appearance of his aides, many of whom have been known to begin telephone conversations by saying: "This is the White House calling."
In testimony before Congress last week, Nancy Gemmel, a 24-year veteran of the White house Personnel Security Office who participated in the Clinton transition, stated that during the administration's first days, students and interns as young as 18, who did not have security clearances, enjoyed free access to the vault where the FBI files were stored. This fact, combined with the political backgrounds of Livingstone and Marceca, brought criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike.
"The evidence to date raises serious questions about the placement of individuals with campaign background in important positions in the Office of Personnel Security," Rep. Cardiss Collins (D) of Illinois said during the hearing. "In the future such employees [should be] career civil servants rather than political appointees."
Rep. Collins's sentiment is shared by many analysts, who believe the US should adopt a more professionalized government akin to Britain's. Such a move, they say, would increase competence and discourage corruption.
Yet White House officials note they have not appointed any more people than previous administrations, and that the number of employees a president can select - 3,000 - is still low considering the size of government. Any attempt to limit presidential appointments, they say, would present constitutional problems. "People expect that when we change presidents we change government," says Elaine Kamarck, director of the White House's National Performance Review. "If we weaken the president's ability to shape government, we no longer have a government of the people."