New York City on $151 a day? Bed and board in Death Valley for $123! Or, for that kind of money, how about two days in Jasper, Ind., which is a $67 per day town, according to new federal expense-account per diem rates to be announced Monday.

The limits say what thousands of federal workers must live on -- or dip into their own pockets -- when on official travel. The levels are also very important to private firms that peg their rates to the government level and to hotels and motels that count on federal business to help fill rooms.

Rates to be published in the Federal Register assign a $131 per diem to the Washington metropolitan area; $105 to Baltimore; $127 to Chicago; $102 to Cleveland; $117 to Philadelphia; $92 to Pittsburgh; $108 to Dallas-Fort Worth; $100 to Houston; $122 to San Francisco (which is cheaper, according to the government, than staying in Death Valley, Calif.); $124 to Los Angeles; and $103 to Denver.

Norfolk's per diem will be $92; Richmond's, $83; and Williamsburg's, $102. In Maryland, rates range from $75 in Cumberland to $126 for Ocean City. Lexington Park and Frederick are considered $80 towns, while Salisbury is pegged at $79, Annapolis at $109 and Columbia at $121.

Next to Jasper, Ind., the best deals, according to federal travel guides, are Thermopolis and Gillette, Wyo., at $68 each. For another $2, the government says, a visiting federal worker can spend 24 hours in Bowling Green, Ky.

Writers, Speakers Ban

The National Treasury Employees Union has asked U.S. District Court here to stop enforcement of a pending law that bans federal workers from taking pay for articles or speeches. Violations of the honoraria ban, part of the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, can lead to fines up to $10,000.

Two NTEU members -- one a part-time writer, the other a part-time minister who gets paid for weddings and funerals -- have gone to court, claiming that the ban violates their right to free speech. The union will expand that lawsuit to a class action to cover all employees. Meanwhile, it wants the court to put a hold on the ban until the issue is decided in court.

Bonus Christmas Holiday

The Supreme Court will give its 350 workers a day of paid administrative leave on Monday, Dec. 24. Still no word from the White House on whether executive branch workers will get off a full day, a half-day or any time at all on the day before Christmas.

In 1986, when Christmas fell on a Thursday, President Reagan gave workers the following Friday off. But in 1984, when Christmas fell on a Tuesday, employees did not get the preceding Monday off.

Last Lump Bunch

Workers who retired by Nov. 30 will be eligible to take lump-sum pension payments, if they choose to take reduced lifetime annuities. Workers retiring after Dec. 1 (expect in rare cases) cannot get lump-sum payments. At noon tomorrow on WNTR radio (1050 AM), financial planner Paul Yurachek talks about the lump-sum option and will tell those who missed it what they will -- and won't -- miss as a result.