President Reagan is expected to announce soon that the nation's one-million-plus white-collar federal workers will get a 4.8 percent raise in October.
That boost, due for 300,000 people here, will be described by government officials as a catch-up with industry. It will not be that. The media will call it a cost-of-living raise. It won't be that either. If the cost of living over the last year had gone up only 4.8 percent, the only place you could find a reference to "inflation" would be in the dictionary.
This coming raise, like nearly all government pay increases, was shaped by politics, and nothing more. Federal workers will say they are getting the political shaft, again. The real world beyond the beltway, where government workers are a minority group, will say that 4.8 percent is pretty good in these times of layoffs and unemployment, when newspapers, factories and small businesses are folding because they can't make a profit.
Under the ritual rain-dance rules set down by Congress, federal pay is supposed to be raised each October by the Great White Father in Washington to keep government salaries on a par with industry pay rates.
The government sends out scouts (the Bureau of Labor Statistics) to see what is happening in industry. The scouts report back via something called the Patsy Survey (more formally known as the Survey of Professional, Administrative, Technical and Clerical Salaries). That is passed on to the president's agents. They massage the numbers some and make a recommendation for a "comparability raise," or a catch-up-with-industry figure, which presidents usually reject and, in fact, rarely even consider.
The Patsy Survey was made earlier this year. The BLS numbers passed on to the president's agents (the secretary of labor and the directors of the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management) indicate that feds should get an average 15 percent raise this October to put them where industry was last March.
Unfortunately for feds, the pay decision was made long ago when Jimmy Carter was still president, and when he thought he might hang on to the job for another four years. Carter thought the so-called comparability system left something to be desired. He asked Congress to change it so that federal pay raises would be based on a comparison of total compensation -- wages and fringes -- between the government and private industry.
Pay experts say such a system would produce smaller future federal pay raises, because government fringe benefits are usually better -- and worth more -- than those in industry. Based on the assumption that Congress would approve his total compensation package, Carter said the October 1981 federal raise ought to be a little over 5 percent.
When the Reagan people took over they said that Carter had a good idea (one of the few they credit him with) but they modified the total compensation system even further. Reagan's substitute budget set a 4.8 percent October raise. This before the BLS survey, the pay agents' report, or anything else.
Although Congress has not formally approved the total compensation approach, it has just discovered spending cuts, and so agreed that the 4.8 percent figure is good. Its budget reform act says the raise cannot exceed that amount. That means it could be less.
Because Washington loves rituals, the pay trials continue although the verdict was announced months ago. The agents will report that under the current system (which they will again say stinks) feds are due an average 15 percent raise. But, since the system stinks, the president will formally recommend 4.8 percent (or less), which is what was intended all along. So when you hear the 4.8 percent figure, don't be surprised, and when you read that it is a catch-up-with-industry, or a cost-of-living adjustment, don't take it personally. Just take it.