While Congress and the White House play their annual game of budget chicken -- using federal workers as hostages in the budget process -- government offices are drawing up plans to furlough thousands of workers one day a week at least through the Christmas season.

Some agencies already have form letters ready to be sent, if necessary, to creditors of government workers who are supposed to have the safest jobs in the nation. The letters point out that Civil Servant X has suffered a 20 percent pay cut through no fault of his or her own. They ask landlords, mortgage companies and credit card firms to cut the workers a little slack during the hard times.

Some government departments are gearing up to reprogram the deductions from their workers' biweekly paychecks so that they pay lower taxes on reduced salaries and to adjust health insurance premiums so that they don't take up most -- or all -- of the paycheck of low-salary workers.

No private sector company in its right mind -- especially one that makes all rules and laws and has a monopoly on printing money -- would furlough its work force during a time of stepped-up activity. But that is what will happen unless the politicians, who love to talk about fiscal responsibility and biting the bullet, start practicing what they preach.

The government is preparing to furlough employees while:

The Social Security Administration is preparing benefit checks that go to one in every six Americans to reflect a cost-of-living adjustment due them in January. The retirees will expect their raises on time. And heaven help any incumbent politician who is perceived as standing in the way of that raise.

Thousands of workers in Defense and other agencies are working overtime (some doing two shifts a day) to support the Persian Gulf military buildup.

The Federal Aviation Administration is bracing for the usual heavier-than-normal Thanksgiving through New Year period when more people fly during some of the worst weather of the year.

Law enforcement organizations such as the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Customs Service have been told to crack down on crime (bank robbers have to get ready for Christmas too!), and to make life more difficult for drug dealers who are making parts of many cities unbearable.

Agencies involved in regulating business, the stock market and banks -- who like to project an everything-is- coming-up-roses attitude to big business -- may have to hang out a Closed for Business sign once a week until further notice. Talk about sending a message to the rest of the economy.

Congress will have to decide what to do about federal workers who are being held hostage in Iraq.

Currently their salaries are being paid to their families back in the United States.

But if the furloughs come, will the hostages get docked a day's pay each week, or will Congress exempt them?