Political Appointees under Microscope 'Filegate' Case Raises Questions about Wisdom of Giving Loyalists Sensitive Government Jobs

Article excerpt

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. …