Because of Uncle Sam's Alice-in-Wonderland-style pay system, thousands of key federal people --directing air traffic, manning CIA watch stations and monitoring friendly-and-not-so-friendly satellites -- will get the same pay for working today they would get if they stayed home and watched TV or raked leaves. Some of their subordinates, however, will get two days' pay for working a straight eight-hour shift.

The big shots -- and there are46,000 of them at the $50,000-level-- work for love of country on days like this because they are up against the $24.09-per-hour limit that Congress imposes on career bureaucrats no matter how important their job, or how many hours they put into it.

Under the bureaucracy's pay Catch-22, lower-level feds who get lots of overtime are in the same boat as their bosses, working today at straight rates while nonessential colleagues who rarely work holidays or overtime get double-time if they work today. Most federal workers cannot get more than $1,927.20 in a two-week pay period. That isn't a problem for most of the government's 2.6 million people, including the typical bureaucrat here who averages about $26,000 per year.

For senior level officials, and mid-grade workers in critical occupations that keep them working 12, 14, 18 hours per day, the pay ceiling is a big problem. One intelligence department boss said that some of his subordinates, who do super-secret stuff seven days a week, 24 hours a day, get less than they should on days like this because their earnings for a two-week period make them ineligible for all the overtime, or premium pay time they work.

Back when it was negotiating with the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization the Reagan administration agreed to support legislation that would allow controllers --generally high-salaried workers who often put in lots of overtime -- to get all earned overtime regardless of the pay ceiling. Many controllers worked holidays and overtime with little or no extra pay because of the pay lid.

Until Congress does something about the pay lid -- or at least agrees to let people get paid for overtime they work -- days like today will be a labor of love for a lot of people whose colleagues are being paid the same thing for going shopping or staying home and watching football games.