The Bush administration's decision to revive cash bonuses for political appointees touched off a fury of criticism yesterday from Democrats, unions and some policy experts who said the move slighted ordinary federal employees and raised the specter of cronyism.

Several agencies said they were proceeding cautiously. A few, including the departments of Justice, Treasury and Health and Human Services, have distributed thousands of dollars in such awards, which can total as much as $25,000 with presidential approval. Other agencies, however, said they had not yet acted on their newfound authority, or had no plans to.

Administration officials added few details yesterday to the March 29 memo from Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. that overturned the eight-year-old ban on such annual cash awards. Some 2,100 political appointees who rank below those confirmed by the Senate are eligible for the payments if they show "substantial work achievements that go well beyond the performance of routine duties," Card wrote. The memo came to light Tuesday amid reports of bonuses at Justice.

The Clinton administration ended the practice of doling out bonuses to most political appointees in 1994 after questionable payments to some outgoing aides in the final days of the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the president's father. A 1994 law still prohibits appointees from collecting bonuses during presidential election periods. Top-level presidential appointees who are confirmed by the Senate can never receive such awards.

Bush aides yesterday tried to minimize the cost of the bonuses -- "a drop in the bucket," one senior official called them. But Democratic lawmakers and government unions jumped on the move as symbolic of what they say is a cavalier White House attitude toward the federal workforce.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the former first lady, called it "a decision that beggars the imagination." She noted that Bush cited a "national emergency" and the need to conserve money for the fight against terrorism last week when he froze one part of a federal pay raise for 1.8 million civilian employees. That limited the overall pay increase to 3.1 percent, less than the 4.1 percent Congress proposed.

"And yet they are going to find money to reward the political appointees," Clinton said, adding that the move "raises all of those specters of 19th-century patronage politicking around federal employees."

A letter to President Bush, circulated by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and signed by 89 House Democrats, leveled similar criticism. "The inequity just leaps out at you," Miller said in an interview.

Employees have also been reeling from administration decisions to outsource more government jobs and rewrite personnel rules at the new Homeland Security Department.

Colleen M. Kelley, the president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said, "This is Robin Hood in reverse, taking from the poor and giving to the rich."

The decision was controversial inside the White House, and officials refused to say what factors had been weighed. While career employees have long been eligible for bonuses, one senior administration official said the idea of reinstating the bonuses for political appointees originally "was dismissed because of the questionable practices that had occurred in the past."

In January 1993, in the final days of the first Bush administration, then-Attorney General William Barr approved more than $100,000 in bonuses, with two $7,500 bonuses going to close political aides who would later join the D.C. law firm where he was a partner.

The criticism generated by that episode persuaded Clinton administration officials to prohibit the practice for all but the lowest-level political appointees, said Leon E. Panetta, who was Clinton's chief of staff.

"My view was there was no way that we could set up a system to make sure abuses didn't occur," Panetta said yesterday.

Paul C. Light, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution, said some appointees do deserve better pay, but a bonus system raises new concerns about pay for political deeds rather than professional ones.

"It's a system rife with the appearance of conflict of interest and unfairness," Light said. "The fact that they did it in secret and didn't announce it speaks to the inherent difficulty of defending it."

Card declined an interview request. A White House official said Card reinstated the bonuses after the Office of Personnel Management received inquiries from several agencies about whether the bonuses could be awarded.

Administration officials did not point to any safeguards that had been put in place to try to avoid the abuses of the past, beyond Card's direction in the one-page memo to Cabinet members and agency heads: "Due to the sensitivity of this parity issue, I ask you to personally review any awards proposed for political appointees."

The memo also said political appointees "should be judged and rewarded in the same manner as career employees."

The policy applies to about 2,100 political appointees who are noncareer Senior Executive Service employees or Schedule C employees. Those categories typically include people such as deputy assistant secretaries, associate secretaries, agency chiefs of staff, deputy press secretaries and similar aides, a senior official said.

Many of the appointees earn between $115,000 and $138,200 a year, although some junior aides make far less.

White House employees are not eligible, said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer.

Most agency heads can hand out bonuses of as much as $10,000 on their own authority. The heads of the Department of Defense and the Internal Revenue Service can go as high as $25,000 per award on their own say-so. Other agencies must seek approval from the Office of Personnel Management for awards over $10,000.

"[F]ederal workers deserve to be rewarded for good work, and there should not be a distinction between those who do good work because they're civil and those who do good work because they're appointed," Fleischer said.

Asked if Bush authorized or knew about the decision, Fleischer said only, "Andy Card did."

Several agencies have reported doling out cash awards in recent months.

At Justice, 10 people had received awards by Sept. 30, a senior official said. None received more than $5,000. Of 336 political appointee positions, 121 are eligible, the official said.

Treasury Department spokeswoman Michele Davis said the agency had handed out 15 cash awards so far.

The bonuses have raised some concern among Treasury employees, but several employees said yesterday they have seen no indication that the bonuses are being abused. Indeed, Kristin Forbes, a former Treasury political appointee who recently returned to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the change was overdue.

"If anything it is the political appointees who have given up the high-paying jobs to take on public service," she said, "and you couldn't give them anything, not even take them to dinner. It just wasn't fair."

Still, some Treasury employees said, the White House has sent a bad signal to career staff. One noted that Treasury analysts are being asked to use frequent-flier miles and stay with relatives when they travel to economic conferences.

At HHS, spokesman Bill Pierce said the agency has given bonuses to about one-third of the eligible political appointees and one-third of its career SES employees.

Forty-two political appointees received bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $5,500; the average award was $2,700. For 123 career SES employees, bonuses ranged from $5,455 to $17,598, he said, with the average at $10,348.

Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency said no bonuses have been awarded to political appointees, but when they are, they are likely to be much smaller than those received by career workers. An Interior Department official said the agency had not developed a policy yet, and the Department of Energy said it won't know for another month who might qualify for the money.

No bonuses had been awarded at the Transportation and Labor Departments, officials said.

Officials at the Education, Defense, Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture departments could not provide information about how they were handling the new policy.

At the Department of Commerce, spokeswoman Emily Kertz said Secretary Donald L. Evans has decided to stick with the old policy of not offering such bonuses to political appointees.

"We have a certain amount of resources and those need to be properly directed towards our priorities," she said.

Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Juliet Eilperin, Dan Eggen, Michael A. Fletcher, Kirsten Downey, Don Phillips, Eric Pianin, Thomas E. Ricks, Peter Slevin, Edward Walsh and Jonathan Weisman and researcher Brian Faler contributed to this report.

White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. reinstated bonuses for what he called "substantial work achievements that go well beyond the performance of routine duties."