Thousands of former federal officials now in retirement may miss the challenge of the job and their old pals at the office, but you couldn't blast some of them back to active duty. Reason: Some of the retirees simply cannot afford to come back for a salary of only $47,500.

Through a strange combination of politics and inflation, at least 2,900 retired government executives now get pensions that are bigger than the paychecks they drew only a few years ago. Some, thanks to cost-of-living adjustments, actually have larger federal annuities than do the people who replaced them at top salary in government.

This Alice-In Wonderland aspect of the federal pay system is the result of years when executives got no raises at all, or token increases during a period when retirees linked to the cost-of-living got regular, substantial boosts triggered by inflation.

Although the typical federal retiree can hardly afford the rent in Fat City, many one-time executives with long service have never had it so good, financially.

The General Accounting Office says the gap between some long-service retirees and executives will continue to widen at an alarming rate, unless Congress and the White House begin giving regular annual pay raises to top federal executives when rank-and-file employes receive them.

Currently, the GAO said in a special report to Congress, more than 12,000 federal executives - most within the Washington area - are earning much less than they are entitled to under the law designed to give U.S. workers similar salaries with counterparts in the private sector.

Pay raises for federal executives have been few and far between in the past decade. That is because Congress has been reluctant to lift the federal salary lid, by voting itself above-board raises.

Although the plight of a $47,500 worker evokes little sympathy with the average American, it is true that government brass doing some very important jobs have remained at the same pay rates while subordinates got annual adjustments, and retired colleagues get cost-of-living raises each March and September.

This compression vs. inflation has pushed more federal workers into the $47,500 pay class, and none above it. For many long-service ex-exutives who retired at top salary the results has been to boost pensions higher than their old paychecks. GAO says Congress ought to allow regular raises for executives, before the best seek greener financial pastures in retirement.