The new administration wanted the government to run more like a business.

The president's advisers had plenty of ideas: Get rid of the General Schedule, the 15-grade pay system that links pay to longevity. Free managers from complex personnel rules, and give them more authority to hire, reward and promote talented workers, and to discipline poor performers. Require agencies to develop more meaningful performance evaluations to send a message that promotions and raises depend on them.

The president was Bill Clinton. The recommendations came in a 1993 report on the "reinventing government" initiative led by Vice President Al Gore. But the kind of restructuring that Democratic administration envisioned would not win approval in Congress until more than a decade later -- under President Bush.

While critics charge that the campaign to overhaul the federal civil service is part of a Republican union-busting agenda, it actually reflects a bipartisan desire to wield more control over the bureaucracy's 1.8 million workers. The changes, especially those that aim to more strongly tie pay to performance, have been sought by both Democratic and GOP administrations over the last quarter-century.

"It's kind of like an evolution of something that started a long time ago, and it's moving forward," said John Kamensky, former deputy director of Gore's "reinventing government" initiative.

Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University, said management experts in both parties have long itched to revamp the civil service system. "There's a lot of agreement that you need to . . . get out of the complexified, ossified system that we now have," he said.

Struggle to Revamp System

The modern federal civil service dates to the Pendleton Act of 1883, which replaced with a merit-based system the "spoils system" of doling out jobs through political patronage. Although there have been periodic overhauls, the arcane and complex nature of civil service rules has made changing them a tough sell in Congress and not a high priority for most administrations. In eight years of "reinventing government," the Clinton administration never found a way to get major civil service legislation through Capitol Hill, particularly in the face of resistance from federal employee unions.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and on Washington changed everything. They placed the civil service structure at the heart of the debate over whether the federal government was adequately set up to protect the country against terrorism. Pressured by Democrats to create a Department of Homeland Security, Bush eventually embraced the idea but insisted on freedom from many civil service constraints in merging 22 agencies.

The changes underway are the biggest restructuring since the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. Bush officials argue that the current system fails to tie pay to performance, and inhibits managers' ability to deploy people and resources to where they are most needed.

Congress gave Bush authority to rewrite work rules covering more than 800,000 civilian employees at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security. Lawmakers hoped to begin implementing the changes this summer, but a lawsuit by the unions has delayed the process. Meanwhile, the administration has drafted legislation to allow nearly all federal agencies to make similar changes.

The new personnel systems at DHS and DOD will replace the General Schedule with broad salary ranges that will enable managers to tailor pay packages to individual employees. The new systems will curtail the power of labor unions by no longer requiring management to negotiate over such matters as where employees will be deployed, the type of work they will do and the equipment they will use. They also will streamline the process for disciplining employees and hearing their appeals of any punishment.

The Bush administration's rhetoric resembles that of Democrat Jimmy Carter, who entered office in 1977 promising to revamp the federal bureaucracy and make it more responsive. In a speech in 1978, Carter described the system as a "tangled web" of complicated rules that had stifled merit and made it nearly impossible for a federal supervisor to fire someone.

"You cannot run a farm that way, you cannot run a factory that way and you certainly cannot run a government that way," he said.

Carter's Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 did away with the Civil Service Commission, an entity that critics viewed as a powerful weaver of red tape, and divided its responsibilities chiefly among three agencies: The Merit Systems Protection Board to hear employee appeals; the Federal Labor Relations Authority to deal with labor-management relations; and the Office of Personnel Management to set policies to create a level playing field in hiring and pay for all federal civilian workers.

President Ronald Reagan took his stab at change, too. His Civil Service Simplification Act of 1986 would have consolidated the 15-grade General Schedule into broad pay bands, allowed higher starting salaries for hard-to-recruit jobs and extended merit pay to all federal employees. But the bill went nowhere.

"It recommended essentially what's being recommended" by Bush, said James Colvard, deputy director of OPM at the time. "We had absolutely no political agenda. . . . What's happened over the years is that the balance of power has swung so far over to the employee side, with management not having enough power to do things, that there needs to be some sort of a balance."

Despite the failures, a piecemeal civil service revolution was quietly underway. The 1978 law had authorized "demonstration projects," which freed selected agencies to test new personnel ideas in limited settings. The best known of these is at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake, Calif., which for 25 years has operated under a pay-for-performance system. Other experiments have taken root at such agencies as the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Patent and Trademark Office, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Sept. 11 Provided Leverage

Bush took office in 2001 and began touting a five-pillar "management agenda" for improving government performance, including "targeted civil service reforms" to help agencies develop talented workers and better achieve their missions. But the idea of overhauling the civil service did not gain traction until after the Sept. 11 attacks.

By linking the changes to fighting terrorism, Bush appeared to gain the political leverage his predecessors lacked, said Robert M. Tobias, former head of the National Treasury Employees Union. "If you look at the language of the DHS regulations, it's all about national security," said Tobias, now director of American University's Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation.

In April 2003, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld went to Capitol Hill to say that the Pentagon needed a more "flexible" workforce to fight terrorism. He got what he asked for. And suddenly overhauling the civil service system government-wide did not look like such a political long shot anymore.

"Some question our motives," said Clay Johnson III, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and the man charged with implementing the changes. "They just don't trust that we could be trying to do something here that would be good for employees. . . . We want the federal government to work better."

So, who wins and who loses?

Federal employee unions predict a workforce demoralized by uncertainty over pay and boxed in by a system that curtails bargaining rights. "This is going to . . . really make it a second-class civil service," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

The administration forecasts better-functioning agencies. Analysts say managers will have a much stronger hand, and, more significantly, so will political appointees.

"The civil service was invented in the 1880s to put in a balance in government to political corruption," said Frederick Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. "The civil servants were supposed to ask questions, especially if they had some kind of job security. The point now, as I see it, of wiping out civil service is to create a workforce that is so temporary and so job insecure that they dare not question any decisions made by their political superiors. . . . It's a bipartisan thing."

Bob Stone, director of the "reinventing government" initiative under Clinton, said the changes will make the government more responsive to the public, who elect the president, who brings in the political appointees. "When the American people elect a government, for better or worse, they want the government to work," Stone said.

"I'm sure there are high-ranking people in the administration who are jumping at the chance to [undermine] the union, but that's not the reason that thousands of managers and supervisors all across the government are salivating for these kinds of changes. They are salivating because they want to do a better job of stopping drugs or equipping soldiers, or a better job of protecting the environment or a better job of providing medical care for veterans."

Jimmy Carter did away with the Civil Service Commission in 1978.

Bill Clinton proposed revisions to the pay system and personnel rules.

Ronald Reagan's Civil Service Simplification Act went nowhere.

George W. Bush successfully tied reforms to fighting terrorism.