The budget reconciliation bills awaiting final congressional rework and approval are a nightmare for legislators who like to know what they are voting on, and a dreamboat for fence-straddlers who like to tell folks back home they voted right, no matter what the issue or how they really voted.
In this area, where 460,000 people get their pay or pension checks from Uncle Sam, much of the focus on the budget bills has been on what they will take out of the hides of federal workers and retirees.
The Senate and House versions are clear on a couple of points affecting U.S. employes. Both endorse the 4.8 percent October pay raise President Reagan proposes to propose sometime next month. Both would eliminate the twice-yearly cost-of-living (COL) raises that federal-military retirees now enjoy, limiting them to one inflation catch-up each March.
Democrats and Republicans courting the favor and votes of the three-million-plus federal/military retirees are now blaming each other for the fact that retirees will not be getting COL raises as often. The Democrats say the Republicans screwed it up by substituting the Gramm-Latta ii compromise for a budget bill favored by the Democratic leadership. The latter would have protected twice-yearly COL raises for federal retirees (by cutting the pay of 170,000 military retirees who hold civil service jobs). Although Democrats outnumber Republicans in the House, the Republican plan passed anyhow.
Republicans say it is the Democrats' fault that federal and military retirees (there are 100,000 just in the Washington area) won't get a September raise, and will be forced to wait until next March for a full 12-month COL adjustment. Republicans say the Democrats could have preserved the March and September raises if they had backed Rep. Claudine Schneider (R-R.I.). She asked that the House instruct the Budget Committee to approve continuation of the twice-yearly COL system. The House leadership said she didn't get enough voice votes for a roll call on the subject.
All of the above, both sides say, is evidence that the other guys are heartless stinkers. The fact is, members of both parties were on political power trips, and federal retirees are the losers. Absence of bipartisan cooperation killed the feature that both sides say they wanted to keep alive.
The confusion over who did what, when and why makes it possible for Democrats like Reps. Mike Barnes and Steny Hoyer of Maryland to say the Republicans like Reps. Frank Wolf and Stan Paris of Virginia to say the Democrats ruined the COL system because they refused to back a substitute that could have saved the COL system by putting it in the Republican package. That is known as the my-heart-was-in-the-right-place school of logic.
A final note as the twice-yearly COL system heads doen the tubes:
Imagine that, like most Americans, you live beyond the beltway, and that, like most voters, you do not work for the government. Half the retired people in this country get no pension, none whatsoever, zip, from their employer. Of those who do get a pension, the vast majority are lucky to get one inflation raise a year, and many get only a partial COL adjustment.
People involved in it know the government retirement system isn't perfect. But it looks awfully good to outsiders. Social Security benefits are, as federal retirees point out, tax-free. But federal retirement benefits, as people under Social Security point out, are much bigger even after taxes.
Cutting the frequency (not the size) of inflation adjustments is a horrible things in this city. But the typical voter "out there" does not work for the government, perhaps thinks less of it than we do, and will not lose much sleep because U.S. retirees will get only one full inflation raise every 12 months.
Maybe members of Congress realize all of that, which is why they voted to chop the feds' COL system. The House smoke screen will allow a visiting congressman to tell the local chapter of the retired federal employees association he fought to keep their raises, then go across town and tell the Jaycees he managed to trim some real fat from the bureaucrats' pension plan. Thanks to the wonderful world of politics, that member will be telling the truth (and also fibbing) whatever he says.