Federal workers--thanks to friends in Congress--are preparing to take the high ground, and hold it, in their battle for the best pay position for 2000.

Civil servants are rapidly advancing toward an apparent 4.8 percent increase. And, thanks to good advice from their unions and political allies, they are using the generally much more popular military to lead the charge up Paycheck Hill.

While feds are looking at their biggest raise in years, retired federal employees (and military retirees) are looking at a January cost-of-living adjustment that will be worth about 1.8 percent.

Why the big difference?

The reason is that federal (and military) pay has little to do with the rate of inflation. Despite this, politicians and the media frequently refer to pay raises--regardless of their size--as cost-of-living adjustments. They are not COLAs. That's like calling the University of Maryland's mascot a turtle rather than a terrapin. Maryland fans know the difference. So do terrapins.

Congress has just accepted a future pay raise for itself that will be worth 3.4 percent. Although politicians billed it as a COLA, it isn't one.

Raises for active-duty civil servants and active-duty military personnel are based on various things, including pay trends in the private sector, budget deficits or surpluses and politicians' mood swings. For example, when Congress gets a pay raise in an election year--which is about to happen--the mood meter rises.

Adjustments for retired civil servants, military retirees and people on Social Security are true COLAs. They were not designed, or intended, to mimic pay-raise practices in the private sector that are based in part on profits and productivity.

COLAs were designed to protect retirees from the ravages of inflation.

In years of high inflation, retirees have gotten much bigger COLAs than the percentage pay raises for federal, military or private-sector workers.

If the White House had its way, civil servants would get a 4.4 percent adjustment in January. But House and Senate Republicans are walking a 4.8 percent military pay raise through Congress.

Friends of civil servants--both Republicans and Democrats--have decided, therefore, that the best strategy is to latch on to the military. Resolutions demanding "pay parity" between civilian and military personnel have passed the House and Senate. Although they are non-binding, they are designed to send the White House a message that the civil service pay raise--which the president will formally authorize later this month--better be 4.8 percent.

Presidents often tend to be generous with federal pay raises just before an election. The Clinton administration, which has a track record of shaving federal pay raises, could do Vice President Gore some political good by going with the higher amount.

Such preelection generosity doesn't always pan out, however. When he was seeking a second term as president, Jimmy Carter hoped to heal some wounds with federal employee unions by authorizing a handsome 9.1 percent raise. Feds got the big adjustment, but the taxpayer-funded transfusion to civil servants' wallets didn't pan out for Carter.

Goddard Layoffs?

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) is lobbying House budget masters to restore funds to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration appropriations bill. NASA's funds have been tentatively reduced for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1--but that could change.

Hoyer--and lots of area employees--worry that a disproportionate share of the cuts would be made at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. Cuts of that magnitude could--but wouldn't necessarily--trigger layoffs.

Buyout Update

NASA is one of 10 federal agencies that have been given the green light by Congress to offer employees buyouts. During buyouts, all of the departments (except Agriculture) can pay employees as much as $25,000 (before deductions) to quit or retire. Buyouts are based on salary and are optional with the agency. Agriculture's program offered buyouts over a series of years, with the value of the payment dropping each year.

Other agencies with buyouts include the CIA, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Government Printing Office, the Architect of the Capitol, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Energy Department, the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration. The expiration date for authority varies. The CIA's ends Sept. 30 of this year. NASA's buyouts end Sept. 30, 2002. The IRS buyout program runs through January 2003.

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