Washington area members of Congress, who represent 100,000 civilian-military U.S. retirees, are trying to protect the twice yearly cost-of-living (COL) raises of those annuitants from harm when Senate-House conferees take up the issue within the next couple of days. It is a complicated procedure.

Reps. Gladys Spellman (D-Md.) and Herbert Harris (D-Va.) joined by Denver Democrat Patricia Schroeder, want the House to order its conferees to stick by their guns to make sure budget cutters aren't allowed to whack a COL boost that is due next March. Retirees -- thanks to inaction, confusion and a congressional change of heart, have already received a 7.7 percent inflation adjustment for September. That extra money will show up in pension checks received next month.

The problem now is to keep Senate and House Budget Committee members, who will also be on the conference committee, from pulling a last-minute switch that could force retirees to skip the upcoming March raise.

Earlier this year Congress, prodded by its budget committees and the White House, tentatively agreed to switch retirees to a single COL adjustment each year instead of the adjustments they now get every six months.

Bowing to intense pressure from the nation's 3 million retirees, and active duty U.S. personnel, both houses of Congress agreed to a compromise that would make the retirement cutback a one-time compromise.

The full Senate approved language that would have skipped the September 1980 raise for retirees but give them a full COL adjustment next March. The House became bogged down in a different compromise, one that would have given retirees the September raise, but skipped the March 1981 adjustment.

With a lot of help from Rep. Bob Bauman (R-Md.) the Rules Committee became bogged down over the COL issue and the September due date came around before the raise could have been stopped. The House voted 309 to 72 for a Bauman resolution guaranteeing no change in the twice yearly COL adjustments. This was done despite the fact that the Democratic leadership wanted one of the two COLs chopped, for balanced-budget purposes.

That action has left the conferees with several options. The parliamentary situation is confused because Congress has not dealt with this sort of thing before in its budget process.

One option is to do nothing. That could leave the two COL raises untouched. Another is to approve language that locks into law the existing practice of giving U.S. retirees two COLs per year. The third is that budget cutters could win the day and order either a temporary, or permanent cutback in the frequency of inflation adjustments.

Purpose of the Schroeder-Harris-Spellman plan is to bind House conferees to the earlier House pledge that no change will be made in the COL system.

Best bet is that the conferees -- with a couple of million federal workers, military people and retirees looking over their shoulder -- will decide to leave U.S. retirees with COL adjustments every six months. But insiders expect the conferees will agree to House language that would eliminate a "windfall" for future retirees.

Currently persons retiring from government can take advantage of the COL adjustment that went into effect just before they retire, plus get the full benefit of the COL that goes into effect after they retire. For example an individual retiring Aug. 30 of this year got most of the COL raise that went into effect in March, plus all of the COL that went into effect in September, before the individual retired. The House plan would eliminate the "look back" benefit, and pro-rate future raises based on the length of time an individual had actually been retired.