Since April 13 a lot of people -- 52,400 as of Friday afternoon's count -- have written to this column. They ask it to pass on a message to Jimmy Carter and Congress. The writers -- from Foggy Bottom to Guam and points in between -- want the following noted:
They work for the U.S. government, serve in the military or are retired after long, faithful service in their book.
Ninety-nine out of 100 say it is stupid or politically deceitful for the White House and Congress to pretend that they can solve the problems of inflation or cure the ills of social security by tampering with the government's own pension system.
Nine out of 10 people who bothered to read, and write, stamp and mail a reply to, this column say they will vote against Carter and any member of Congress who permits their guaranteed-by-law pension system to be cut back.
Congress and the White House have proposed a cutback in the system that gives federal, postal and military retirees cost-of-living raises every six months. Under serious consideration is a single COL raise each year. At current inflation rates that would reduce future income of the retirees by at least $1 per day.
The April 13 column asked people what they thought about that, and about proposals to merge the generous, self-sustaining civil service retirement system with the less-generous, welfare-oriented Social Security system. That an overwhelming number of federal workers and pensioners objected to those two proposals is not surprising. That such an overwhelming number would respond, with such passion, was a jolt to lots of people, including the valiant copy aides and mailroom personnel of this newspaper.
The 52,400 letters, cards and telegrams formed the biggest response this newspaper has ever received on any single issue.
In a town with about 400,000 federal and military personnel, and out of a federal force of about 2.6 million people, 52,400 individual responses (with mail still coming in) is a lot. What do the results mean? And will they do any good? Consider:
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) responded to the questionnaire. Kennedy said he would not vote for the COL cutback plan backed by the White House. A few days later Kennedy lost the Democratic primary in Maryland, but he carried super-affluent Montgomery County and neighboring Prince George's, which has more of a blue-collar image. Both are loaded with federal workers, family members, retirees and military personnel.
Although some unions and retirees urged members to write this column, the vast majority of the letters have come from individuals who used stamps, not meters or government franks, and who signed ballots and wrote in many juicy editorial comments.
Three senators from states with heavy federal-military populations have called for more details on the poll and on the issue of pension cutbacks.
Although the response was mainly from the Washington area (Maryland residents led the list, followed by letters from Virginia, Pennsylvania, District of Columbia, North Carolina and West Virginia), it was not confined to the mid-Atlantic states. Letters came from U.S. workers in London and Paris, from Caracas, and with APO Miami addresses used by U.S. Embassy personnel in Latin America. There have been 4,200 letters with California postmarks; about that many from Florida, lots from Chicago, Kansas City and Oklahoma City; big batches from Illinois, Texas and Colorado, and would you believe, 600 so far from Hawaii.
Despite predictions of Carter aides that given the choice between Reagan and Carter, the federal force will stick with their current boss, 9 out of 10 said they will vote against Carter if he lets the cutback in the COL-based raise become law.
Here is some typical comment received in the mail:
"There exists incompetence in depth in the White House starting from top to bottom . . . I got taken in by 'trust me' last time, but not again . . . Four more years of Carter and the civil service system will just disappear or revert back to the spoils system . . . and in many places we have just that right now . . . Everybody, including Carter, knows that federal salaries and benefits can neither cause nor reduce inflation. This is like saying federal employes caused the Depression of the 1930s. He must think we are stupid like some of his staff." L.A., New Orleans, La.