The Clinton administration is making a last-minute bid to get congressional approval for a return to government-wide buyouts. The effort--which probably is too late for this year--would allow the White House to offer employees in shrinking agencies payments of up to $25,000 (before deductions) to quit or retire.

The six-year White House downsizing program--helped along by buyouts--has eliminated more than 300,000 full-time federal jobs. Federal employment is at its lowest levels since the Kennedy administration, thanks, in part, to a new emphasis on farming out work to private contractors.

Downsizing enabled the administration to cut overall federal employment without large-scale layoffs (known in government as reductions in force, or rifs). Layoffs hit women and minorities hardest because employees who are generally the first to go are those with the least seniority and without veterans preference protection. Buyouts enabled longtime employees (mostly white males with veterans preference who were in mid-level jobs) to leave voluntarily.

Currently, only 10 federal departments and agencies--employing about half the total civilian federal work force--are offering buyouts. Dozens of agencies--from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the General Services Administration--that plan to cut jobs don't have the legal authority to offer buyouts.

Under the White House plan, any federal agency that could make a case for buyouts could offer workers buyouts of as much as $25,000 to quit or retire. The exact amounts, subject to deductions for taxes and the like, would be determined by employees' salaries. Agencies would have to agree to eliminate permanently one full-time job for each worker who took a buyout.

Office of Personnel Management Director Janice R. Lachance made the case for a government-wide buyout program--controlled by the White House and the Office of Management and Budget--in an Aug. 3 letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).

Most of the 130,000 federal buyouts granted during the Clinton administration have gone to Defense Department workers. At one time, all agencies had buyout authority. But government-wide authority expired several years ago, and Congress has shown no interest in reviving it.

Since government-wide buyouts ended, Congress has granted agency-specific buyout authority to the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Defense, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Internal Revenue Service, the Bonneville Power Administration, the Government Printing Office, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Architect of the Capitol. Those programs are still in force--though rarely used--with different expiration dates.

Late last year, Congress surprised the White House and some congressional committees with jurisdiction over civil service matters (like buyouts) by allowing some agencies to go out of normal legislative channels to get buyout authority. Those surprise buyouts were authorized for two sites operated by the National Park Service and a Public Health Service hospital in Louisiana. Neither the White House nor congressional civil service committees knew the buyouts had been granted until they read about them in the newspapers.

This year, several agencies and departments--including the Department of Veterans Affairs and some components of the Treasury Department--have asked appropriations committees to include buyouts in their money bills. But none has been approved.

Early this year, the White House said it would ask for a return to government-wide buyouts. But the plan--for a variety of reasons--didn't go to Capitol Hill early in the session. After a delay of several months, a number of federal agencies said they had been advised quietly by the administration to look for a friendly committee on Capitol Hill and try to cut their own buyout deals.

Now the government-wide buyout request has been revived--at least on paper. But this late in the session, there is little chance it will be approved through normal channels--that is the regular committee route. The only shot for a government-wide buyout program--or for agency-specific buyouts--seems to be through a last-minute deal as part of Senate-House conferences on agency appropriations or authorization bills.

COLAs and Health Premiums

Many federal retirees are convinced that rising health insurance premiums will eat up any cost-of-living adjustment they get next year. Premiums--as reported in the Federal Diary in June--are expected to increase an average of 10 percent. Meanwhile, with one month left in the COLA countdown, retirees are due an annuity increase of about 2.1 percent. The COLA will be greater if the consumer price index rises in September.

But a double-digit premium increase and a small COLA don't necessarily mean smaller retirement checks, according to the experts. For a reality check on the premium-vs.-COLA situation, check the Federal Diary tomorrow.

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

Wednesday, Sept. 1, 1999