Senate and House budget conferees have a long way to go before they reach a compromise on the kind of deficit-reduction savings that are to be made by trimming federal personnel program costs.
The Senate and the House have approved budgets that are very similar in the amount of money they propose to save over the next three years. But they are light-years apart in the all-important question of how those savings are to be accomplished, especially in the two biggest budget items, defense spending and retirement programs.
The House, for political reasons, is trying to make Senate Republicans appear to be anti-senior citizen. The Senate, for political reasons, is trying to make House Democrats appear to be fiscal wimps, afraid to take harsh economic medicine.
The Senate has proposed multibillion dollar savings by freezing cost-of-living adjustments next year for persons drawing civil service, military retirement or Social Security benefits.
But House conferees have made it clear that they do not want any COLA freeze, preferring that cuts come from a reduction in government contracting-out activities. Since one of every six Americans draws some kind of Social Security benefit, the political stakes are high.
Both the Senate and House have tentatively approved a federal pay freeze for 1986.
Some members of Congress are proposing to allow Social Security raises next year and to apply the freeze only to civil service and military retiree COLAs. But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) has stated that the COLAs should cover all benefit plans or none of them.
If the conferees can't reach a compromise to accommodate the civil service program spending cuts already approved, they will have to look for other areas of savings.
Those could include a federal pay cut next year (not likely), some kind of prolonged or permanent cap on COLAs or full inflation adjustments on only a portion of each retirees income.