Federal white-collar workers hope to cash in--literally--on the political popularity of the military by the time their January 2000 pay raise kicks in.

The White House has budgeted a 4.4 percent adjustment for civil servants, while Congress is set to give military personnel a 4.8 percent adjustment. Congressional friends of feds have convinced the House and Senate to approve nonbinding resolutions that would give both groups the same--higher--amount next year. That would be good news for feds.

Congressional Republicans tend to look with favor on the military. The Clinton administration is working hard to prove that it isn't anti-military in any way, shape or form.

Whether the proposed pay "parity" between feds and military personnel is temporary or becomes permanent, both groups are heading for the equivalent of a 20 percent-plus pay raise over the next four years.

Under pay projections made by the White House, civilian personnel are due a 4.4 percent raise next year, a 3.4 percent adjustment in 2001 and 3.9 percent each year through 2004.

Under a new pay formula tentatively approved by Congress, military personnel next January would get 4.8 percent, followed by a 3.5 percent raise in 2001, 4.3 percent in 2002, 4 percent in 2003 and 3.9 percent in 2004.

When the Congressional Budget Office crunched the projections--and took into effect the value of compounding--it found the end result is pretty much the same for both groups.

Contractors vs. Feds

Proponents of contracting out say it is cheaper and more efficient for the federal government to pay outside contractors to perform many functions now--or once--handled by federal employees. The Clinton administration has pushed agencies to get rid of employees in so-called overhead jobs, including payroll, personnel and budget.

During downsizing operations--when the government wound up paying 130,000 employees an average of $24,000 to retire--many in-house maintenance and repair functions were farmed out to nonfederal personnel. In many agencies, from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to the Central Intelligence Agency, contractors outnumber civil servants in some functions.

When the government was shutting down shipyards, critics argued that it was leaving the military without the personnel or ability to handle major work during times of emergency or war. The counterargument was that the private sector can do it better--at lower cost--and doesn't add people to the payroll, or pension roles, for life.

Which is why lots of folks were intrigued by news reports Friday of Operation Octanova. It was a sting operation--which began in 1995--resulting in criminal charges against 21 individuals. It was a joint operation with investigators from the FBI, the Navy, the Defense Department and the Department of Transportation. The contractors have been charged with big-time fraud and presenting the Navy with inflated bills for ship repair work--all in areas where Uncle Sam has gone out of the ship repair business.

The individuals who got $200 million in Navy payments managed to buy themselves--or give to friends--such things as television sets, golf clubs, trips, private school tuition and some individual dinners that cost more than your annual health insurance premiums.

People who worry about the influx of contractors, especially in areas involving national security and defense, feel--or make the argument--that civil servants are easier to control and watch and more likely to have a deeper loyalty to the organization or operation they are serving.

Obviously not all feds are saints, and not all contractors are sinners. But this sting--now public--is one of several that are still in various stages of investigation. And it is hard to recall similar shenanigans involving federal workers.

Mixed Marriages

If your spouse is a civil servant and you work for a private company, chances are you have checked out each other's health insurance options. In some cases, feds find it more cost-effective to take their spouse's health coverage and ignore the federal program.

But if the marriage ends--and it happens--or if the fed retires, the situation can change dramatically. If you are within five years of retiring or your relationship is on the rocks, check this space tomorrow.