Your choice: You want the good news or the bad news first?

It doesn't really matter because where Congress is concerned, if you are a federal worker or retiree, the news is the same. Thanks to its 1999 schedule, Congress has almost no time left to do anything for, or against, federal workers and retirees.

The downside is that if you expected some legislative yummy to be handed out, you can probably forget it. On the other hand, if you expected a boot-the-bureaucrats'-backside session, you can probably relax.

Congress has been away much of the year, and -- where timeouts are concerned -- it is just getting started.

For example, Congress is still on its Memorial Day break. Yours probably ended last Tuesday. But the House and Senate don't return to work in Washington until tomorrow.

Your idea of Independence Day is different from the way Congress views the holiday. You will get Monday, July 5, off -- if you're lucky. Congress will be away from July 3 to July 12.

On Aug. 7, the House and Senate will begin a summer break (you probably thought they already had it) that is to last until Sept. 7. Congress returns Sept. 8 and will then go into a frantic work mode that will last until the targeted Oct. 29 adjournment.

No wonder some people spend millions to get the job!

Actually many members work hard during breaks. More are back home visiting with the folks -- or doing congressional business -- than on overseas junkets. But still, that's a lot of time off.

What the short schedule means is that most legislation affecting federal employees and retirees probably won't be enacted. Civil service matters -- in the best of times -- are low priority. But with a short schedule, most civil service matters are in the no-priority category.

Democrats and Republicans both would like to enact a long-term care insurance program for members of the federal and military family. But unless the White House and Congress resolve the issue over who sets premium and benefit levels -- the government or competing insurance companies -- long-term care won't be approved this year.

Congress is considering legislation to "make whole" federal workers who were placed in the wrong retirement system (CSRS instead of FERS). But the Senate and the Clinton administration object to the more generous House bill, and there may not be time to work out a compromise.

The House has approved legislation that would let federal workers shift money from another 401k plan (but not an IRA) into the federal thrift savings plan. The White House approves, so this one may clear the Senate. But Congress is unlikely to overcome White House objections to legislation that would let any federal employee -- regardless of salary or retirement system -- invest up to $10,000 a year in the savings plan.

The administration's civil service reform plan (with good and bad aspects for workers) isn't likely to be launched -- let alone approved -- this year. Ditto for the White House plan -- still on the drawing boards -- for a government-wide buyout program.

Republicans are pushing legislation that would keep federal agencies operating into the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 even if President Clinton vetoes appropriations bills. The GOP was blamed the last time there was a government shutdown, and leaders want to avoid a repeat. Some Democrats, and perhaps the White House, would like to keep the threat of a shutdown as a political weapon.

Because of politics, and the tight calendar, Congress may not have enough time to decide on whether to keep all government agencies running after Oct. 1.

But, you ask, will Congress get paid even if other government agencies are shut down because of congressional inaction? What would be your best guess?

Questions and Answers

Who runs the government life insurance program, and what happens to all those premiums?

Why does Uncle Sam let workers donate unused vacation time to sick colleagues but denies them the right to donate unused sick leave to sick people?

What are the chances of allowing workers who would like to retire early to swap places with employees who have the option but want to keep working?

Good questions. And we've got the answers, which may surprise you. Check this space tomorrow.