Despite a potential budget clash between Congress and the White House, the two appropriations bills authorizing a 4.8 percent January pay raise for white-collar federal workers and military personnel appear to be outside the political danger zone.

President Clinton has threatened to veto one or more appropriations bills approved by Congress or in the works. That would produce a partial government shutdown unless both sides agree to a continuing resolution to keep agencies operating when the new fiscal year begins Friday. During the last such shutdown--triggered by a series of presidential vetoes--Republicans took most of the political heat.

Although playing political chicken has become standard procedure, both pay raises seem safe.

Energy Department brass have advised the White House they can live with controversial security-related language contained in the defense authorization bill. That bill is the vehicle for next year's military pay raise.

The 4.8 percent is more than the 4.4 percent proposed by the president, but the White House has no problem with the higher amount. But this month it warned of a possible veto of the defense authorization bill because of the Energy Department language. That issue appears to have been been resolved, however, so the pay raise remains on track.

The Treasury, Postal Service, general government appropriations bill also seems to be immune to veto threats that have been issued against other money packages. The bill is the vehicle generally favored by politicians seeking larger raises than the White House has proposed. This year, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) inserted the 4.8 percent pay raise language in the House version, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the Appropriations Committee chairman, put the higher civilian raise in the Senate bill.

Locality vs. National Raises

Later this year, it will be up to the White House to decide how much of the average 4.8 percent pay raise will be allocated to a national adjustment--to go to most white-collar federal workers--and how much will be applied to locality pay adjustments.

Currently, federal workers in some cities, including New York, Houston and San Francisco, get higher pay than their Washington-based counterparts because of locality pay differentials. By the same token, federal workers in the Washington-Baltimore area are paid more than federal employees doing the same jobs in many cities, including Salisbury, Md., Richmond and Norfolk.

COLA Increases

Reader Patsy Poe says she's read plenty about the federal-military pay raise but hasn't heard anything about the January cost-of-living adjustment for retired federal workers and military personnel and people receiving Social Security benefits.

In a sense, she is lucky to have missed the bad news for retirees: Their COLA will be less than half the pay raise going to active-duty civilian and military personnel.

Many retirees have gotten the bad COLA news--and commented on it several times in the Federal Diary.

With one month left to go in the COLA countdown, the retiree COLA looks like 2.3 percent. The COLA will increase if the consumer price index goes up this month.

By law, retirees get COLAs that are supposed to keep them roughly in line with inflation. COLAs are not the same as pay raises for active-duty workers, which is why the two are usually different, sometimes very different.

In the past, when inflation was extremely high, retirees got COLAs that exceeded the percentage pay raises given to federal workers. Before a change in the law, retirees sometimes got more than one COLA--and once got three COLAs--in one year.

Pay raises are based on national and local pay trends in the private sector. Those trends, in turn, take into account various factors, including productivity and employers' recruiting needs.

Many retirees resent the COLA system, especially when it results in their getting a smaller increase than federal workers. Many also question how the CPI is calculated. But changes in the CPI are determined by the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics under guidelines set down by Congress.

Departures

William Wiggins is retiring this week after 37 years with Uncle Sam. He's a computer specialist with the Air Force Pentagon Communications Agency.

The Federal Aviation Administration's James M. Casey is retiring after 37 years of federal and military service. For the past 23 years, he has been with FAA's U.S. Notice to Airmen Office.

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

Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1999