A third notice from the electric company usually means your lights are about to go out.

This week, the House sent a third reminder--to Congress and President Clinton--that civilian federal workers and military personnel should get the same 4.8 percent raise in January. Democrats see the non-binding sense-of-Congress votes in the House and Senate as a gentle reminder to Clinton and to uninterested colleagues. The idea is that civilian workers deserve pay raise parity with military personnel next year.

Republicans who like federal workers--or like seeing the president squirm--consider it a warning shot at the White House.

Either way, the pay raise parity resolutions (two in the House, one in the Senate) have the same goal: to replace the 4.4 percent pay raise--proposed by the president and included in Senate and House budget plans--with a 4.8 percent raise for civilian feds as well as military personnel.

The White House hasn't commented on pay lately. Clinton doesn't have to make his final decision known until the end of August. But the Office of Management and Budget recently said 4.8 percent is too much for military personnel and, by implication, for civilians, too.

The House defense appropriations bill and the Senate defense authorization bill have already set the military raise at 4.8 percent. If civilian feds get it, too, they will ride in on the coattails of their currently more popular military counterparts.

Although he proposed the 4.4 percent raise, there are several reasons the president is expected to approve a 4.8 percent raise. Among them:

Guilt: Every year, Clinton has proposed smaller federal civilian pay raises (which usually determine military raises) than those called for by a 1990 federal law. The bipartisan legislation had promised much larger raises for federal employees to close the "pay gap" with private industry.

Reality: The difference between a 4.4 percent raise and a 4.8 percent raise is no big deal at a time of major budget surpluses.

Politics: Even a slightly higher raise would help federal union leaders (who have supported the administration) bring some relatively good news to very angry members who resent downsizing, reinvention and six years of diet pay raises.

More Politics: A 4.8 percent adjustment would make it easier for unions to continue supporting the administration and to endorse Vice President Gore for president in the Democratic nomination contest and the general election. Gore has been careful not to undercut the president in meetings with top AFL-CIO and federal union leaders. He has made no public promises of better days for feds if he is elected. But a higher raise would be viewed as a hopeful sign for the largely Democratic union chiefs.

The amount of the federal civilian pay raise is a minor blip on the congressional radar scope this year. But most politicians are rallying round the flag on the issue of military pay.

After Senate and House approved a Republican-proposed 4.8 percent pay raise for the military, pro-fed members of Congress-- Democrats and Republicans--pushed for a parity resolution asking that civil servants get the same raise. Backers include Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), whose status as chairman of the Appropriations Committee makes him one of the most powerful people in Congress, and Clinton loyalists such as Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) and Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.). That's sort of like the sheriff, all the townsfolk and Tonto, too, telling the Lone Ranger he's on the wrong trail.

The difference between the 4.4 and 4.8 percent is significant to federal workers. Feds retiring at the end of this year who cash in lots of unused annual leave would be paid a lump sum at the higher rate. Pension benefits are based on an employee's highest three-year salary average. Life insurance coverage and the amounts workers can contribute to the government's 401(k) plan also go up with each pay increase.

The latest request for pay raise parity came in the form of an amendment to the Treasury, Postal Service and general government appropriations bill. Hoyer put the parity language in the bill. In April, he put similar language in an emergency funding package to support the military effort in the Balkans.

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

Thursday, July 15, 1999