Most federal employees, in most agencies, are technically eligible for a buyout. But getting a buyout these days is like winning the lottery. Possible, but not likely.

Buyouts--actually, the proper term is "voluntary separation incentive payments"--are based on salary and length of service. The maximum payment in most buyout programs is $25,000 before taxes. The Agriculture Department has a special buyout program, for which the value declines each year. Currently, Agriculture's maximum buyout payment is $10,000.

But the elusive nature of buyouts is driving some employees to distraction. They say they read about them and hear about them. But they aren't getting any offers. The situation leads to hostility and suspicion on the part of some people.

Dare to mention that the Department of Defense is offering buyouts, and you can expect a series of angry phone calls or e-mails pronouncing you an idiot, or worse. There is no such thing as buyout authority, many angry employees charge.

Remark that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has the authority to pay selected workers $25,000 to retire and prepare for blast off. NASA types from Greenbelt to Houston say there is no such thing.

What most of the angry callers are saying, in effect, is that nobody they know (including themselves) is getting a buyout. That's like saying a $5 million state lottery jackpot is a fake. It isn't. But most of the people who play it won't win the big bucks.

Buyouts, in one form or another, have been around since the start of the Clinton administration. The White House authorized them--with congressional approval--to downsize government without being forced to lay off large numbers of new hires--mostly women and minorities--who lack job-protecting seniority. More than 130,000 buyouts (averaging just over $24,000 before taxes) have been paid.

The government-wide buyout program (the Federal Workforce Restructuring Act of 1994) ended March 11, 1995, although some people were allowed to delay their departures. The administration abandoned plans this year to ask for another government-wide buyout. Congress balked at the idea of giving the White House what it considered an undated blank check to issue buyouts on an as-needed basis. Agencies who need buyout authority--to avoid layoffs--have been quietly advised to go to Congress on their own and make their case.

The program is now limited to 10 agencies. For those who doubt, here's a list of federal agencies with buyout authority, the laws authorizing their buyout programs and the expiration dates:

* Defense Department; Public Law 102-484; Sept. 30, 2001.

* NASA; Public Law 104-204; Sept. 30, 2000.

* Agriculture Department; Public Law 103-180; Sept. 30, 2000.

* Central Intelligence Agency; Public Law 103-36; Sept. 30, 1999.

* Energy Department; Public Law 105-262; Jan. 1, 2001.

* Nuclear Regulatory Commission; Public Law 105-245; Dec. 31, 2000.

* Architect of the Capitol; Public Law 105-55; Oct. 1, 2001.

* Government Printing Office; Public Law 105-275; Sept. 30, 2001.

* Bonneville Power Administration; Public Law 104-46; no end date.

* Internal Revenue Service; Public Law 105-206; Jan. 1, 2003.

Windfall-Offset Update

Congress is moving slowly, but surely, on legislation that would modify two laws that can reduce or eliminate the Social Security benefits of federal retirees. The so-called windfall law can reduce (but not eliminate) the earned Social Security benefit of a federal retiree. The so-called offset law can, and often does, eliminate a federal retiree's spousal Social Security benefit, which is based on the Social Security-covered service of a retiree's spouse.

For an update on the two laws, check the Federal Diary tomorrow.

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