Federal workers who dreamt of taking part in a 1999 American civil service version of Spain's famed running of the bulls--in this case a mass exodus of aging government employees pursuing $25,000 buyouts--may want to get a little more real. As in:

Focus on trying to buy the winning lottery ticket. It is one thing to build castles in the air. It is another to try living in one.

But while the idea of a you-want-it-you-got-it government-wide buyout offer is deader than the proverbial doornail, the hectic closing days of Congress could bring some happy surprises. A number of federal agencies are doing legislative end runs. They hope that a favorite congressional committee will disguise, then approve, buyout language in one of the many must-pass appropriations bills.

Here's the deal:

Earlier this year, the White House said it would ask Congress for permission to allow downsizing agencies to offer workers up to $25,000 (before deductions) to retire. The idea was to preserve jobs for recent hires and nonveterans who would otherwise be subject to termination under downsizing--wrecking the administration's diversity numbers. Over the past six years, more than 130,000 federal workers received buyouts, while only about 30,000 were fired in downsizing that eliminated more than 350,000 federal jobs.

Now, however, White House and congressional insiders and federal union lobbyists agree that no government-wide buyout bill will be introduced, in part because there is little chance Congress would approve it.

Instead, either officially or otherwise, federal agencies seem to have adopted an every-agency-for-itself tactic. That is, find a friendly congressional committee and get it--somehow, someway--to authorize agency-specific buyouts. Most agencies that still have buyout authority got it through last-minute deals in House-Senate legislative conferences.

Odds are that few agencies will get special buyout authority. But that hasn't stopped many of them--including the Department of Veterans Affairs and units of the Treasury Department--from asking Congress. Of the Cabinet-level agencies, VA stands the best chance of getting buyout authority.

Buyouts and Inflation

Some bold agencies--seeking buyout authority for themselves--have told Congress that the current maximum $25,000 payout isn't what it used to be. In terms of 1993 dollars, when the buyout program started, the same payment today is worth about $20,000, they've told Congress. To make matters worse, the $25,000 shrinks, after deductions, to about $16,000 for the typical federal worker.

Computer Specialists

If you have ever wanted to work for the Internal Revenue Service, mark Saturday, July 24, on your calendar. The IRS is having a job fair--from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.--at the Marriott Hotel in Greenbelt. The tax agency has 40 openings for computer specialists at the Grade 13 and 14 levels. For details, call 202-283-1727.

Regional Manager Openings

The Department of Transportation has openings--$102,300 to $118,400 a year--for regional managers in its Philadelphia, Atlanta, Fort Worth and San Francisco offices. For details, call 202-366-2444.

Tobias Departure

Friends and colleagues plan a sendoff celebration this evening to honor Robert M. Tobias, longtime president of the National Treasury Employees Union. He's largely credited with turning the once-insular (IRS-based) union into a national labor organization with members in many agencies. He also helped draft the IRS reforms that are now law.

Tobias, considered one of the best and brightest in the labor movement, probably could have been president for life. He had, as one adversary once said, "the ability to charm an IRS commissioner . . . or member of Congress out of a tree."

But in his mid-fifties, he's decided to move on. Official plans include teaching at a local university and writing. Friends suspect he will be tapped for a key post in Vice President Gore's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

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

Thursday, July 22, 1999