WASHINGTON - When President Clinton came into office, his aides groused about the antiquated White House phone system, dismissing it as a "tin can and a wire."
So his assistants bought a new telephone system. Taxpayers picked up the $25 million tab.
But a congressional investigation has found that the existing system worked just fine and wasn't even being used fully.
In addition, the costly new system, selected without competitive bidding, offers only minimal improvements over the old one, a congressional report says.
"The administration appears more concerned about getting what it wants when it wants it than in saving the taxpayers money," said Rep. William Clinger of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the House Government Operations Committee.
White House officials defend the new phone system, saying it will save money by centralizing telecommunications management and will include features such as a voice mail system. They say they had to bypass competitive-bidding procedures to protect national security and "urgent telecommunications requirements."
"The new system will be able to provide more in-depth statistical information of calls received and hang-up calls," White House aide Patsy Thomasson told the committee.
In Clinton's early weeks, when gays in the military and Zoe Baird's nanny woes were the talk of the country, the White House switchboard was deluged with about 65,000 calls a day, compared to about 5,500 on a busy day during the Reagan and Bush years. The main number - 202-456-1414 - stayed busy.
At the time, White House officials acknowledged part of the problem was inexperience: new staffers and volunteers manning the phones. But they also complained that the system itself was a technical hodgepodge, a relic of past administrations.
"I was astonished to see how relatively primitive the White House communications system was," Vice President Al Gore recalled recently. "President Clinton and I took a tour and found operators actually having to pull cords for each call and plug them into jacks."
In fact, the old phone system was set to handle 100,000 calls an hour but could have handled up to 200,000 calls an hour, according to the congressional report written by Republicans on the House Government Operations Committee.
"The system problem, which led to thousands of unanswered calls and busy signals was not inadequate equipment, but rather a lack of personnel to properly man the public comment lines and inadequate management procedures," the report says.
"I think these guys didn't know how to make the phone system work. I think the taxpayers got taken for a ride because these guys didn't know what they were doing," said Monty Tripp, the principal congressional investigator.
Instead of seeking bids from a number of companies, the White House limited competition to three vendors - American Telephone and Telegraph, Northern Telecom Inc. and the local phone company, Chesapeake and Potomac. It ended up signing contracts, worth $25 million over 10 years, with AT&T and C&P.
"... Only the three vendors allowed to compete for the award could meet the Executive Office of the President's delivery and security requirements," Thomasson wrote.
The congressional report disputes that, saying the White House could have delayed the purchase to allow other vendors to obtain White House security passes.
Thomasson said bids were limited because "it is impossible for President Clinton to carry on truly private telephone conversations since the White House operators have access to all phone lines," the report says.
But, the president could have a private line installed in a few hours, the report says.