It could be late August before federal, postal and military personnel learn what is going to happen to their twice yearly COL (cost of living) raises, and whether they will get a 7.7 percent inflation adjustment due Sept. 1.

The Senate has approved legislation that would trim federal-military retirement costs in the upcoming fiscal year by skipping the next COL raise, and making retirees wait until March for an adjustment.

The House is nearing a vote on a Post Office-Civil Service Committee compromise that would grant retirees the September COL adjustment and skip the March 1981 raise.

Both the Senate and House plans go against the Carter Administration, and Budget Committee proposals to limit U.S. retirees to a single COL raise each year. Retirees now get inflation catchups every six months.

The bottleneck -- which is good for retirees -- is in the House Rules Committee. It must clear the Post Office-Civil Service Committee COL compromise before the full House can vote on it. Once the House approves the plan it will go to a conference of Senate-House Budget Committee members who will decide:

1) Whether to accept the Senate plan that skips the September raise and restores the two COL system with the March 1981 increase.

2) Whether to accept the House proposal that allows the September 1980 raise, skips the March 1981 increase and returns to the two COL cycle in September 1981.

3) Whether to undo all the work of the White House and the Budget committees (which want the single annual COL adjustment made permanent) and leave the two COLs intact.

The latter option is possible under an amendment being readied by Rep. Joseph Fisher (D-Va.). Fisher's amendment would, if the House Rules Committee okays it, be offered when the House votes on the COL question. Unless the Rules Committee allows the amendment to come up for a vote -- and Chairman Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) opposes it -- the House cannot take action.

In straw votes earlier this week in the Rules Committee Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.), all other Republican members of the Rules Committee and three Democrats voted in favor of letting Fisher offer his amendment to the full House.

Opponents of the two COL raises, led by chairman Bolling, want the committee to block any amendments -- including the Fisher plan. Meantime, the clock is ticking.

The House is scheduled to recess Friday until August 18. Unless the Rules Committee acts today, and the House moves very, very quickly, the COL issue cannot be voted on by the full House before August 18. And the COL payoff system cannot be changed until the Senate-House conference. tAnd they can't have their conference until the House has a bill. And the House can't have a bill until the Rules Committee clears it for a vote. And the Rules Committee can't clear it for a vote until the Fisher-Bauman plan to save the two COLs is settled.

The situation is so complicated that normally knowledgable Senate and House staffers, and union lobbyists, almost burst into tears when asked to explain what is happening. I can sympathize with them -- there are a few tear stains on this column.

Rather than confuse people with the complexity of the issue the National Association of Retired Federal Employes has dropped the recorded COL explanation from its telephone "hot line" for members. NARFE has done outstanding lobbying work -- along with the major postal and federal unions -- that is partially responsible for the Rules Committee bottleneck. That bottleneck is good for retirees, since the longer Congress delays action on the COL system the better the odds that it eventually will do nothing, leaving the two COL raises intact.