When President Lincoln was sick with smallpox, the story goes, he sent his aides to "tell all the office seekers to come in at once, for now I have something I can give to all of them."

Lincoln was one of a succession of presidents of the last century, as well as congressmen and other officials, who grumbled that their time in office was consumed with handing out virtually every job in government as a payoff to their supporters.

This was the infamous "spoils system." Under each new administration in those days, hordes of office seekers would descend "like locusts" on Washington, where government "jobs were openly bought and sold," according to civil service historians.

Often aggressive and unruly, the mobs "pressed their claims in the government departments, in the White House, in the Capitol."

Despite a rising public outrage over "government incompetence," not to mention rampant graft and corruption, it took decades and a succession of bills in Congress plus the assassination of President Garfield by a disappointed job seeker before the government finally, in 1883, created the civil service system.

As then conceived the civil service was to provide expertise and continuity through a permanent bureaucracy. The criteria for hiring were to be founded on people's qualifications for the job - on merit rather than political support.

Beginning tomorrow, a series of congressional hearings will focus on the latest struggle to adjust that massive bureaucracy and fine tune the touchy balance of power between elected leaders and their own work force.

This time, the Carter administration is arguing that he pendulum has long since swung too far in a protective reaction against the spoils system, abandoning the responsiveness and accountability of political control, as well as its more extreme levels of abuse.

As he promised on the campaign trail, Carter recently asked Congress for a new set of civil service laws to create a more effective government, one "not mired in its own red tape."

His proposals seek to hack away some of the jungle growth of procedural protections built up around federal employes, in order to give managers more flexibility in the way they use their work force. At the same time, he says, his plan would make fairer and simpler the protections of employe rights.

Among the key elements of Carter's complex overhaul plan are: a new carrott-and-stick system of pay incentives; simpler and quicker procedures for hiring and firing employes; an elite corps of senior executives who would trade some job security for the chance at higher pay for good performance; curtailment of the automatic, lifetime advantages given to able-bodied veterans in federal hiring and job retention, and a pledge to strengthen the collective bargaining position of the federal employe unions.

Carter would abolish the Civil Service Commission and create in its place two bodies: one under the wing of the White House to manage the bureaucracy with a firmer hand; and an independent board to protect employes against management abuses and represent their interests.

Everybody is basically for civil service reform - the way they're for the flag, motherhood and apple pie," says one Capitol Hill aide.

But, as the president's overhaul package moves into the congressional arena, it faces close scrutiny and modification attempts by a variety of interests.

These include the powerful veterans' lobby, federal employes at various levels, some employes' union representaties, and some members of Congress who are either closely aligned with federal employe constituencies or who have expressed skepticism over the true value or intent of the administration's plan.

At the same time, the administration team broad support, at least in principle, from the public, from business and citizens groups and - conditionally - even from the AFL-CIO, parent of the largest federal employes' union the labor unions' lobbying clout is deemed crucial to the success of the legislation.

Reaction by the key House Civil Service Committee, which will hold this week's hearings, has been surprisingly favorable now that some of dits members and staff have had a chance to read the 130-page bill, according to a committee spokesman.

The committee traditionally tilts toward the position of the AFL-CIO-backed American Federation of Government Employes (AFGE) in its approach to legislation.

A number of potential opponents of this or that part of the bill say they are reserving judgment until they know more about it. Meanwhile, much of the resistance to the proposals is shaping up around the specter of "politicization of the bureaucracy," in its worst spoils-system sense.

Officials of recent administrations have sometimes attemped to increase their political control on the sly, by sidestepping or violating existing civil service rules. Such activities under Richard Nixon's administration are the most notorious. They included the use of techniques (such as unpleasant transfers) for forcing incumbent career employes to resign to make room for political loyalists.

"Personally, I'd like to see some of those inept bastards go - some of (GS) 16's and 17's" muttered a mid level employe at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, speaking of proposed new rules for managers. "But, knowing the way government works, I'm afraid it will be the obsequious ones who rise to the top, and the good ones will get exiled to Guam."

One of the problems is "that people often have different things in their heads when they say 'political control,'" said Civil Service Commission Chairman Alan K. Campbell, the president's point man for selling the new plan, and a specialist in public administration.

Carter's proposals would not increase the number of political appointees in government, Campbell said, but "in fact would limit them by law for the first time."

What administration officials are seeking in the way of increased controll, he said, is the flexibility to move people around, especially at the top - career bureaucrats as well as political appointees - in the way the presidential team feels will allow it best to pursue the policies the people put them in office to pursue.

"The issue is not spoils system versus the career system," Campbell added. "It is the extent to which people have almost absolute tenure in certain positions."

Cater's plan would let civil servants keep their tenure in government as long as their work was satisfactory, he said, but, as in the military and the foreign service, executives would be able to move them around within offices, or from one office to another. "People would no longer 'own' certain jobs," Campbell said.

You can't design a whole system based on a "worst-case scenario," in order to eliminate all possible abuse said Howard Messner of the office of management and Budget, another chief architect of the president's civil service plan. "You let our system of checks and balances take care of the worst."

Said a midlevel manager in a social program at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, "Lately," I'm thinking maybe the small percent of abuses you'd get as a result of a more political system isn't as bad as the 60 percent inefficiency you get with all these people growing old and being protected without having to perform."

Under the spoils system of the last century, virtually the entire government was turned out with each new administration and a new crowd brought in to run things.

The current, vastly larger and more complex system allows the president and his top aides to put their own "team" into around 2,200 policy-making or politically sensitive jobs. These political appointees can be fired at will.

The permanent civilan work force that the president inherits to carry out his policies is numbered at about 2.8 million (2.1 million without the U.S. Postal Service, which is outside the civil service system).

Government bosses give about 98 percent of their white collar workers "satisfactory" ratings on the job, and most of the rest are deemed "outstanding," according to government studies. If an employe does get an "unsatisfactory rating," it can be appealed.

At least 99. percent of those workers get periodic "merit" raises, on top of yearly raises to keep them even with the private sector's cost of living increases.

"We have lost sight of the original purpose (of the system), which was to reward merit," Carter said when he announced his plan.

"Last year," he said, "out of about 2 million employes, only 226 people lost their jobs for incompetence or inefficiency."

The movement for Civil service reform has produced a number of "horror stories" about government personnel procedures, such as the tale of the Commerce Department secretary who regularly failed to show up at work, and whose coworkers agreed she was an incompetent and a burden to them. Her boss spent 21 months in the red tape jungle documenting her nonperformance before he could get rid of her. The manager devoted so much time to the problem that he got a reprimand from his own boss for letting his work slip.

It can take to three years to fire a federal worker, according to Civil Service Commission studies, and it takes an average of seven months to hire a medlevel white collar worker.

Some federal employes and their unions maintain that such statistics and stories distort the true picture, although most agree that certain procedures, especially those designed to deal with employe grievances, are too long and complicated.

Union spokesmen (as well as some of the blame on week or incompetent managers for problems in dealing with employe, discipline and performance. The managers are sometimes reluctant to face the unpleasantness or the paper work involved in dismissing an incompetent, "even though that's what they're paid to do - manage," said Donald MacIntyre, an official of AFGE.

If a manager does take action, "in many cases we (the union) and the employe win on procedures (such as improperly filled-out forms), MacIntyre said. "The managers violate the very rules they wrote themselves . . . Maybe they just ought to teach their own people how to do it better.

Some federal union leaders havevoiced oppositions to any attempt to "make it easier to fire govenment workers," or to move management controls closer to the White House.

AFGE has negotiated a tenuous deal with the administration. In exchange for its support, "with certain reservations," the union expects to get a new federal labor-relations authority patterned after the private sector's National Labor Relations Board, along with other changes it has sought in the labour-management structure, according to spokesman Greg Kenefick.

One major, historic exception to the merit principle in civil service has been the system of preferences given to veterans in getting and keeping federal jobs. It is the president's attempt to curtail these advantages that is expected to draw the most concentrated fire: Members of Congress will find it especially difficult to resist the lobbying clout of veterans groups if the legislation comes up this year - an election year, according to an administration official who specialize in veterans matters.

The administration argues that its proposals would cut the advantages only of able-bodied veterans long out of service, while increasing these advantages where they are most needed - for the disabled and the recently returned (Vietnam era) veterans. The changes are designed to make it easier for managers to hire "qualified woman, minorities and the handicapped," the president said.

Almost half of government jobs are held by veterans although they meke up only 23 percent of the nation's work force, according to government figures.

"I think some of the resistance to this is not so much based on the substance, which is not that drastic," said one veterans spokesman, but on its "smybolic value" in the general attitude of the Carter administration toward veterans, which perceive to be threatening.