Federal agencies with large numbers of high-paid executives may try to save money next year by downgrading some Senior Executive Service staff members who are due substantial raises. Most of the nearly 8,000 senior executives live here.

Executive raises next year will range from 18 to nearly 25 percent. Currently, the lowest- paid senior executive gets $71,200 a year. Top executives are paid $83,600. But that top-to-bottom spread of $12,400 will widen considerably next year. Senior executive Level 1 is set to go to $87,000. Level 6 moves to $108,300.

Agencies can cut SES pay once a year by several grade levels. However, the Office of Personnel Management has strongly suggested that agencies limit the cut to a one-level downgrading.

But the Bush administration this year successfully blocked legislation that would have limited management's downgrading authority to cases of poor performance or misconduct.

Fearing that agencies may try to create less expensive executive positions, Reps. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.) and Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) served notice they will hold hearings if downgradings start. Sikorski is chairman of the House Civil Service subcommittee. Morella is ranking minority member.

Meanwhile, the Merit Systems Protection Board has issued a report that says the SES, created by the Carter administration as a rank-in-person outfit, still runs like the rest of government, where budget and staff size determine the bosses's rank and pay.

About 75 percent of the SES work force is at Levels 4 through 6. But the board said the grade distribution varies widely. In the Army, Department of Transportation and National Labor Relations Board, nine of every 10 SES members were in the highest-pay levels, with salaries from $79,200 to $83,600. By contrast, the more Spartan (or just plain cheaper) OMB, Environmental Protection Agency and Treasury had only about 50 percent of their executives at those levels, with the others ranked lower and paid less.

The board said a true rank-in-person SES might be desirable, but would be expensive. Last year, 91 percent of all SES members were rated "fully successful" or better. That means that eventually almost everybody would move up to top pay levels, regardless of duties. The report said that could create morale problems (with executives who felt they had greater responsibilities) and money problems for agencies that will be required to finance much of the pending pay raises.

Air Force Retirees

The Air Force and the National Association of Retired Federal Employees will set up special councils to provide pre-retirement counseling and update retirees on legislative matters and local leisure and employment chances. The councils are set for Eglin and Homestead Air Force Bases in Florida, Lowry in Colorado, McGuire in New Jersey, Offutt in Nebraska, and Kelly in Texas. NARFE already has 45 retiree service centers throughout the country. NARFE President H.T. Steve Morrissey and Air Force personnel chief P.L. Schittulli signed the agreement Wednesday.