How do you stem the flow of illegal drugs coming into the country by trains, planes and automobiles?

One way, according to the House of Representatives, is to put more U.S. Customs Service inspectors on the front line. They are experts at playing hide-and-seek with crooks.

The House also has another idea: Cut the pay of some of the Customs inspectors as much as $5,000 a year.

What?

More Customs inspectors, and less money for some of them, is part of the Customs authorization bill that cleared the House last week. Unlike an appropriation bill -- which provides money for specific things -- this is a suggested course of action.

The bill has lots of good things in it, both in real-world terms and for political consumption. In addition to recommending more inspectors to help spot and sniff out things (with the help of dogs), it recommends an intensified campaign against pornography.

But there is language in the bill that has upset some of the inspectors and their National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU). It would change the hours of shifts for which night differential pay (worth 15 to 20 percent) is authorized and paid.

Some members of Congress are upset -- with some justification -- because they have learned that some employees were being paid differentials they weren't entitled to or for work they didn't actually perform. As a result, the House plans to tighten the application of differentials. Translation: Fewer shifts would be covered at night differential rates. As a result, some employees -- who are assigned to shifts on a rotating basis -- would take what amounts to a pay cut.

A typical Customs inspector earns about $40,000 in base pay. Night differentials and overtime can increase that amount by $4,500 to $5,000 a year, according to the NTEU.

While the authorization bill isn't designed to hurt inspectors' income, that is the effect, according to the NTEU.

The authorization bill expresses the sentiment of Congress. But it is up to the Appropriations Committee to come up with the money -- and guidelines -- for this and other authorization programs. Customs inspectors hope somebody in the Senate, or somewhere, knocks out the provision that would effectively cut salaries.

$25,000 Buyouts

The May 24 Federal Diary, which was about the Department of Veterans Affairs' efforts to get buyout authority from Congress, confused some readers. Agencies can't offer the $25,000 payments to quit or retire unless Congress okays them. Currently, only a handful of departments and agencies, including the Defense, Energy and Agriculture departments, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Government Printing Office, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Bonneville Power Administration and the CIA are authorized to offer buyouts.

The column said that while VA had a good chance of winning buyout authority from Congress, its victory could hurt a pending proposal from the White House to extend buyout authority government-wide. Bottom line: Agencies that already have buyout authority by law will keep it regardless of what Congress does with the VA request or the broader proposal to make buyouts government-wide.

Postal Carriers' Generous Holiday

Members of the National Association of Letter Carriers picked up -- on their own time -- more than 51 million pounds of food from patrons in their recent national drive. The letter carriers picked up donations of canned and nonperishable food. The drive to provide food to the needy also got a big assist from local United Way groups, the United Auto Workers-Saturn Partnership Initiative and Campbell Soup Co.

Senior Executives Parley

The Senior Executives Association will have its annual meeting July 7 at the Wyndham City Center Hotel here. The session takes place at the same time SEA's Professional Development League is holding its executive leadership conference. For details, call SEA at 202-927-7000.

Phone Sex Case Closed

The May 23 Federal Diary noted that a special Selective Service hot line for federal hiring officials listed in the Code of Federal Regulations handbook belongs, in fact, to a pay-by-the-minute telephone sex talk service. The Selective Service System says that it gave up the "800" number on Oct. 1, 1990, but that change hasn't been noted by the Code of Federal Regulations. The old Selective Service System hot line number "apparently was reissued by the telephone company to a private concern," a spokesman said.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com