With only a month to go in the COLA countdown, federal civilian and military retirees, and people getting Social Security benefits, are in line for a 2.3 percent increase in January. The cost-of-living adjustment will be more if the consumer price index rises this month. That information will be available in mid-October.

Many federal retirees are unhappy because active-duty federal workers and military personnel are likely to get a 4.8 percent raise in January. The raise--higher than the 4.4 percent budgeted by President Clinton--is based on private-sector wage gains, productivity measurements and other factors, such as political and fiscal considerations.

COLAs, by law, are pegged to increases in the CPI from the third quarter (July, August and September) of one year to the third quarter of the next.

Tuesday's Federal Diary pointed out that many retirees either don't understand the difference between COLAs and pay raises or think the system is unfair. That prompted a number of comments from retirees who disagree with the complaints. For example, Bob Selinger, a retired branch chief with the Internal Revenue Service, said: "I find the disappointment by retirees concerning COLAs vs. a pay raise a sad story. As a worker at a time when retirees received higher raises than employees, I always found that to be a sham. No other pension plans give raises or COLAs to retirees.

"By the time you retire, you should have other sources of income from savings, investments, etc. If you don't, then that was your choice to blow it, and you should not expect the government to make it up.

"I am very pleased with the COLA coming in January, as it will cover the increase in health costs and still leave a few bucks for spending. Not many, if any, can say that of private pensions."

Edmund A. Langr said: "Once in a while, it might be useful to somehow make people realize the corrosive nature of inflation and the fact that bigger COLAs aren't going to make them better off. When inflation is low, retirees with low COLAs aren't losing money, but with high inflation, they will get bigger COLAs but be worse off. One example, with high inflation, the . . . dollars they have in savings accounts lose value at an alarming rate."

And Carmen Aldridge said: "I am an early-out retiree and couldn't help but laugh at the melodrama of your column [about] our minimal COLA vs. the federal workers' raise. Any retiree who was counting on getting a 4.8 percent COLA is too naive to be retired. . . . You built up suspense in your column as though Congress would eliminate our COLA altogether. Any federal retiree who depends on COLAs as their 'new year's gift' is in a pathetic financial state at any rate and should not have retired in the first place."

COLA Catch-Up Each year about this time, some federal workers make plans to retire, hoping to take full advantage of the upcoming annuity COLA. Can't be done. The COLA is pro-rated on a monthly basis. Just as retirees don't get the benefit of a federal pay raise, federal workers can't qualify for a COLA until they are retired.

Lesson Learned In Tuesday's Federal Diary, I forgot an old newspaper rule: Never label someone the "first" or "oldest" or "only" person to have done something. In almost every case, somebody, correctly, will point out you are wrong. Like now.

The column noted that the annual Capital Challenge footrace, which fields runners from Congress, the executive branch and the media, was scheduled for yesterday morning. The three-mile run around Hains Point raises money for charity and gives prizes to the fastest teams and individuals. Contestants also get a neat T-shirt (Vice President Gore recently wore his on the cover of USA Today) to show that they showed up.

My mistake was saying that Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) would be defending his title as the fastest man in Congress. Ooops!!!

One reader who caught the mistake was Leslie Gordon. She sent an e-mail reporting the outcome of yesterday's race: "As predicted, my fine husband, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), is the undisputed 'fastest man in Congress' for the 11th straight year--with a time of 17:01 for the three miles. Not bad for a 50-year-old! His time was minutes ahead of the nearest competition in either the House or Senate. I though you might like to know!"

And an e-mail from reader Steve Neville raised an interesting question. "Can Senator Nickles really be faster than his fellow Oklahoman [and former football star], Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.)?" The answer to that one is between Nickles and Watts.

Nickles was the record holder for the Senate.

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

Thursday, Sept. 16, 1999