When Congress jumped onto the 1975 Model AFPC (automatic federal pay cycle), a lot of top-level bureaucrats groaned.They realized that the new political uneasy riders would make the road to higher pay bumpier for everybody. They were correct.
The big jolt came Tuesday. The House Appropriations Committee voted to freeze 1978 pay for all federal officials who make $47,500 or more. That includes politically jittery members of Congress, and nearly 19,000 career and political appointees as well as many top military officers.
The pay lid, if it sticks as is expected, will not affect the timing or amount of the October raise due rank-and-file civil servants and military personnel. They are expected to get a raise of 5.5 percent. That is the amount President Carter says is consistent with fight on inflation.
Employes who are near the $47,000 level (which many Grade 15 workers are) will get partial raises to put them at the ceiling. It will mean many more subordinates will move up to the same salary level as their bosses.
Most of the executives who would be denied 1978 pay raises live and work within the metro Washington area. Their problem is their linkage - which Congress ordered - with congressional salaries. Members of Congress now get $57,500 a year. In February 1977, they permitted themselves a $12,900 increase. So the loss of 5.5 percent this year, for them, isn't all that tragic.
White House staff salaries alos have gone up considerably during the period before President Carter assumed office.
A few members of Congress actually opposed the $12,900 increases and refuses to take them. Those members (of what is probably the world's smallest, best paid minority group) either turn that extra money back to the Treasury or give it to a favorite charity. Most members took the money while they were decrying excess federal spending and inflation.
Unfortunately, the pay shenanigans were all too predictable. On Jan. 28, this column speculated that members of Congtess - Still reeling from the effects of the $12,900 pay raises - might sit 1978 out.
At that time it was reported ". . . the problem for Congress is that 1978 is an election year. And Congress traditionally backs off from pay raises in election years on the fairly solid assumption that the voters get irritated by such things."
The column pointed out that Congress could forego the raises for itself but still let nonpolitical civil servants have them, but that didn't appear to be in the cards. Members of Congress don't like to see nonelected bureaucrats move into their pay bracket.
A lot of federal officials at the $47,500 level think they are underpaid. Many conted they could make more on the outside.
Many people on the outside argue that government executives are over paid and overprotected.
The problem with a pay freeze is that it doesn't address the real issue, which is whether top federal workers are overpaid, underpaid or whatever. It is strictly a political decision, part of the public relations campaign Congress and the White House always mount for the voters in an election year. When they talk about government "holding the line" in spending, they usually aren't talking about their own paychecks or perks.
You can expect some members of Congress from "supergrade country," maybe somebody like Rep. Newton Steers (R-Md. of Rep. Herbert Harris (D-Va.) to make a move to limit the pay freeze to members of Congress. They represent the bulk of the federal executives who would lose out on pay raises this year.
But that kind of save-the-supergraders plan doesn't have a prayer, unless the White House actively supports it. And that isn't in the political cards.
For top government executives - the worthy and the unworthy - the freeze has come a little early this year. It is a very strange way to run a big business like the U.S. government.