Recommendations for the care and feeding of top career government executives during a RIF (reduction if force) have been delayed while lawyers argue over what sort of job guarantees -- if any -- Uncle Sam owes members of the elite Senior Executive Service.

Nine out of ten SESers live here. That means that you probably are one, work for one, know one or are otherwise affected if the $50,000-a-year SESer in your life gets sent to the unemployment office.

This column has obtained a copy of the SES layoff guidelines drafted by the Office of Personnel Management and sent to the Office of Management and Budget in late May for clearance. Agencies waiting to begin high-level RIFs -- because of budget, program or political changes -- are anxiour for the guidelines to be issued so they can get going.

Under the proposed regs, career SES members whose jobs are wiped out by RIFs would not be automatically moved to another SES job. The regs say agencies should make every effort to place desplaced SES types and to justify it [in writing] when they cannot. But the regs go on to declare: "OPM has decided placement in SES vacancies should not be mandatory. The government must be able to place the best possible candidate in top executive positions and not merely an individual who in minimally qualified. Also to allow for the greatest stability in the key management positions of an agency at the time of a RIF, no displacement rights are provided employees whereby they could 'bump' other career employes in the SES."

OPM's proposed guidelines eliminate any safety net that would have given RIFfed executives the same rights as SES members let go because their performance has been marginal. These borderline SESers are permitted to stay on the payroll by moving down to a Grade 15 job.

"The argument for RIF fallback was that since employes removed from SES because of performance reasons had fallback rights to GS 15, employees whose performance was fully successful and were removed from the SES by RIF through no fault of their own should, as a matter of equity, have the same right to the extent permitted by law," the proposal states. "Upon further review, OPM has concluded that there are substantial legal barriers to a fallback right in RIF situations, and therefore it is not provided in the regulations."

The tough RIF regulations note that SES members belong to an elite service and do not have the right to expect to be put back into the regular Civil Service if jobs are abolished.

". . . Providing a guaranteed fallback in a RIF," OPM says, "dilutes the identity of the SES as a separate service distinct from the rest of the Civil Service." The idea is that Congress set up the SES with "a range of benefits available to no other type of employees and also provided agency heads with more discretion in hiring, assigning, reassigning and firing career executives than is available in dealing with other types of empolyes," the statement goes on to say. To grant fallback rights to executives hit by RIFs would be to treat the SES "as a simple extension of the competitive and excepted services and is contrary to Congress' intent in establishing the SES as a separate service," it asserted.

While removing the safety net that many SESers pray for in layoffs, the OPM says government has a duty to make "special efforts" to assist displaced executives find other jobs. OPM says it will play an "extremely active role in bringing displaced career executives to the attention of any agency that has an SES vacancy" and that "detailed procedures on this activity will be issued by OPM shortly."

Meanwhile, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), has written OPM director Donald J. Devine requesting a briefing on the SES RIF rules before they are issued. Wolf is a member of the Post Office-Civil Service Committee and a White House favorite, and represents many government executives. Wolf says he wants incumbent members of the SES so come under a grandfather clause that would guarnatee them fallback rights to Grade 15 if they are laid off through no fault of their own.

Wolf said a June 9 sneak preview here of RIF regulations disclosed that "incompetents" bounced from SES would have protection denied top-caliber executives hit by no-fault layoffs.

"I find it hard to believe that such a procedure is being proposed or that such a result would be approved by this administration," says Wolf. Lots of SES types would agree.