President Carter's decision to sweeten the federal-military pay adjustment to 7 percent is "acceptable" in Washington. But the political question is whether it will play in Peoria.
By changing his mind at the last minute and tacking a few million extra dollars to the pay raise, the president has opened himself up to charges from the antigovernment, antibureaucratic lobby that he has sold out or has been conned by Washington.
The fact that bureaucratic Washington, as reflected through union spokesmen and individual interviews, considers the 7 percent raise "too little, too late" may not play very well in Peoria either. [Government officials said it would take a full 10.4 percent to bring white collar federal wages up to counterpart industry pay for the same jobs.]
According to Office of Personnel and Management data the "average" salary for white collar federal workers in Washington is nearly $23,000, and for field civil servants it is over $19,000. Armed with that the antibureaucrat lobby contends that government workers are overpaid, agencies are overstaffed and employes fire-proof. They say even 5.5 percent is too much at a time when Chrysler is firing thousands of people because it failed to make a profit.
Government employe unions say the 7 percent isn't enough and that it may cost the president millions of votes in federal and military families. Realistically, it might cost him Falls Church and Bethesda. But beyond the Beltway, in Peoria, people find it hard to get too angry over the action.
Politically, the president would have been smart to stick with a 5.5 percent raise. Better yet, he could have frozen all federal salaries. Or cut them. He would have been knighted in Peoria and beatified in newspaper editorial offices. Poke your nose outside of Washington if you doubt it.
Our strange [not necessarily wrong, strange] view of federal pay raises stems from the fact that this is a unique company town. A minority group member in Washington is some body who doesn't work for the government.
People here who don't work directly for Uncle Sam live, nevertheless, off the federal employe dollar. Stores sell to feds. Newspapers get ad money from advertisers seeking the U.S. dollar.
The $700 million transfusion we get each month in federal payroll is more than the base of our local economy. It is our local economy. Government workers here aren't remote drones or anonymous rude clerks. They are people we live and work with. They are us. Not them!
Our big company isn't Boeing Aircraft [thank God], or Chrysler [thank God] or the Edsel auto company [thank God]. Our biggie is the U.S. Congress, followed by HEW, followed by the Navy, etc. They don't go out of business when they make a mistake [thank God] or fail to show a profit [thank God]. The smallest federal agency in town is larger than most of our biggest private firms.
In Washington even when we think unkind, negative thoughts about government and bureaucracy we are much kinder and more positive than our cousins in Salt Lake, Dayton or San Antonio.
Peoria isn't "sophisticated" enough to understand the particular nature of this town. By the same token we don't understand what makes Peoria tick, even though we probably ordered up a few million dollars [some of them Peoria's] for research projects into the subject at one time or another.
But we in Washington -- bureaucrat or hangers-on -- ought to realize that, numerically, there are more people living, working and voting beyond the Capital Beltway than in our own tight little federal island.
So we should understand when Peoria, or Indianapolis, or Plains, Ga., fails to understand our lack of gratitude over a "paltry" 7 percent raise.
And Peoria, Indianapolis and Plains ought to understand why we feel the way we feel. What can they expect from the only town in America where DOE means the energy department, not a female deer!