When Congress recently decided to accept a pay raise, it ticked off some taxpayers. And it provided ammo to some of the nation's newspaper editorial writers. Starting next year, the $136,700 salaries of most members of Congress (those not in leadership positions) will go up 3.4 percent. That may be chump change to network TV stars and baseball players, but it seems like more than a living wage to many people.

For political reasons, politicians called the 3.4 percent adjustment a cost-of-living raise, even though living costs have gone up less than half that amount since last year, when Congress also accepted a raise. Whatever.

But when word of the congressional pay vote hit federal agencies, many government workers, especially the big bosses, had reason to cheer, not jeer.

Reason: Members of Congress are human, and if they are getting raises, they are more likely to be generous about raises for civil servants.

The president has proposed a 4.4 percent civil service pay raise effective Jan. 1. But chances are federal workers will get the same 4.8 percent that Congress is nailing down for uniformed military personnel.

Members of the federal Senior Executive Service, about 7,000 career employees and political appointees, have a more direct interest in the congressional raise. SES members make between $110,351 and $125,900 in the Washington-Baltimore area. Because of locality pay rates, SES members in some cities generally make more or less than Washington-Baltimore rates. But because of a pay cap, no SES member, anywhere, makes more than $125,900.

The SES pay cap goes up when congressional pay goes up. SES workers who have reached the cap have a shot at a raise only when Congress gets one. And Congress doesn't accept a pay raise every year. It did last year, but that was the first time since 1993.

Rank-and-file federal workers usually know what their next pay raise will be by the end of August. This year, the only issue about next year's pay raise is whether it will be 4.4 percent or 4.8 percent.

For executives, the amount of the raise is in doubt longer. But whether they get anything at all often isn't decided until very late in the year. That's when the president issues an executive order setting the amount of the raise, if he's going to give one at all. No executive order means no pay raise.

Insiders predict that the White House will go along with an SES raise. The Senior Executives Association, which represents most SES members, has been lobbying the White House, Congress and anybody else with influence.

Best guess: Executives who are subject to the pay cap most likely will get a 3.4 percent raise. Some, at lower levels, could get slightly more. Most members of the SES are in levels 3, 4 and 5, which because of the pay "cap" all have the same $125,900 salary.

Steamy Subject Reader Rita Richardson says yesterday's item--about the government's now defunct "misery index"--made her hot under the collar. The misery index was a scale used by Uncle Sam to determine the indoor heat-humidity levels in federal offices. If the index hit certain levels (such as a temperature of 95 with humidity of 55 percent) federal workers could be dismissed.

The misery index fell out of use when air conditioning became widespread. But it wasn't always so, according to Richardson, who writes:

"I was amused by the column [about] the criteria for heat-related early release policies of the past. If you look at the workplace photos from the old days, you see women in suits or dresses with foundation garments and stockings, and men in long-sleeve shirts and ties. Not like today, where you can walk into some offices and think you're at a picnic. Let's not even talk about commuting in non-air-conditioned cars and buses. You'd be hard-pressed to compare the two situations. Sorry, no sympathy here."

Talk, Don't Fight Alternate dispute resolution (ADR) is hot stuff in federal agencies these days. The idea is to settle problems before they become a federal case. This morning, the Office of Personnel Management was scheduled to give out its "director's awards" for the government's best ADR programs. OPM Director Janice R. Lachance was to be accompanied by Attorney General Janet Reno. Winners are Air Force headquarters and the the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in the Washington area and the Air Force 37th Training Wing at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.

Honorable mention awards will be given to the Agriculture Department's National Finance Center, the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation, the Postal Service's REDRESS program and the Seattle Federal Executive Board's ADR consortium.

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

Tuesday, July 27, 1999