The White House hopes to turn controversy surrounding federal pay "reform" into political leverage that will ensure that Congress approves legislation in time to trim billions of dollars from the October government salary hike.
Because of the complexity of the president's reform plan many observers have written if off as a dead duck in the 1980 election year. But administration aides aren't buying those obituaries for the proposal. It would mean a dramatic shakeup in the way white collar salaries are set, and regional government pay to match rates in the private sector.
In Washington, for example, the plan would tie the pay of 300,000 civil servants here to that in local "industry." It also would weigh the value of government fringe benefits against those offered nonfederal employes.
Instead of letting pay reform slide over into 1981, the White House apparently plans to fight a six-committee battlefront in the Senate and House. The idea is to get all, or major portions of pay reform, in place this year. They believe they can put pressure on incumbent Democrats and Republicans to support reform, or face the prospect of being labeled federal paycheck fatteners.
If the administration plays hardball on pay reform -- and there is every indication that it will -- federal workers, their salaries and fringe benefits will become major political debating points over the summer.
President Carter mentioned federal pay reform in his budget, and his State of the Union address. He projected a 6.2 percent federal pay raise this year -- if reform is passed -- rather than the 10.9 percent government workers would be due for under the current catch-up-with-industry pay system.
The difference or "loss" in the pay raise this year under "reform" vs. the present "comparability" system is about $2.9 billion.
Opponents of pay reform -- most major unions and many members of Congress with large federal employe work forces in their districts -- fear the administration will end-run the House Post Office-Civil Service Committee. It is generally more sympathetic to government workers than other congressional units.
Insiders predict the White House will seek to get part of its pay reform enacted through the increasingly powerful Senate and House Budget committees, or through the Appropriations committees, which pass on individual money bills to run departments and agencies. The Budget committees could order a reduction in funds available for federal pay raises, and the Appropriations committees could "cap" white collar pay or perhaps order it set along regional lines, as is now done for the half million wage board (blue collar) federal workers.
Administration officials with links to governors and mayors will argue that their support for pay reform could ease salary demands from their 12 million state and local government workers, if federal pay is aligned with local government salaries.
Because of its high concentration of professional and technical workers, the federal government has a salary average about $5,000 a year higher than that of the typical American worker. Resentment against government and high taxes can be translated into resentment against "bureaucrats." And that puts the federal work force, and unions, on the defensive. Don't count out major changes this year in federal-pay fixing until midnight Dec. 31.