Companies that sell professional liability insurance have just picked up about 150,000 potential new customers.

All of them are government employees--typically making $50,000 or more--who can now more easily afford the premiums. And most of them are in jobs that increasingly make them targets of lawsuits or administrative actions from members of the public and people--both subordinates and bosses--in their own agencies.

Individual federal workers generally are immune from outside lawsuits if their agency determines they were acting properly "within the scope of their employment." The government will defend them if they meet that test, and also if it is deemed in the best interests of the government to do so.

Many supervisors and managers find themselves in legal proceedings because they are accused of improper actions--from failure to promote someone to suspending or firing a subordinate.

Like many high-profile officials, President Clinton himself is a firm believer in, and user of, liability insurance.

Effective Oct. 1, federal agencies are required to pay half of the premium cost for professional liability insurance for a large number of workers, including supervisors, managers and executives, as well as many law enforcement personnel.

Typically, insurance policies favored by most federal professionals run about $300 a year. Policy-holders, depending on the type of policy, can be covered for $500,000 to $1 million for administrative and criminal judgments against them. The policies also typically reimburse as much as $100,000 a year for attorney fees.

Language in the Treasury-Postal Service-General Government Appropriations bill mandates that agencies pay half the premium tab. Previously, agencies could help their professionals cover part of the cost of liability insurance, but many--including Defense, Justice and Treasury--didn't. Now they must.

Clinton signed the legislation Monday. It also includes language that would give federal white-collar workers the same average 4.8 percent pay raise that is effective in January for military personnel. The bill--as outlined in the Federal Diary yesterday--also extends the life of the government's early-retirement program indefinitely, and underscores the fact that agencies have the power to decide which employees--by location, occupation or grade level--get early-retirement offers.

A proposal to make the government share the cost of liability insurance has long been pushed by the Senior Executives Association, the Federal Managers Association, the Professional Managers Association, the FBI Agents Association, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and other groups representing managers, supervisors and law enforcement types.

Currently, on the Web site fedmanager.com (an Internet newsletter), SEA's G. Jerry Shaw urges professionals to send a "thank you" note to Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) for pushing the premium-sharing plan. But the ever-careful Shaw, who is also a lawyer, warns professionals not to attach a "fruit or flower basket" to that note. That would be illegal, and they could wind up needing a lawyer.

UFOs and Angels

Folks who think that retired federal workers are interested only in the next cost-of-living adjustment should check out the Oct. 26 meeting of the Gaithersburg chapter of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees. Speakers for that session, at the Asbury Methodist Village, will talk about "Ghosts, Angels & UFOs," then get down to "Bridge Basics." For details, call Roma Diehl at 301-869-7348.

Politics and Postals

The National Association of Letter Carriers is counting ballots in a presidential preference straw poll of its 315,000 active and retired members. The association is one of the few unions that lets its members decide which, if any, candidate it will endorse in presidential elections. In most federal and postal unions, political endorsements are made by the union president or members of the executive board.

The association's vote was designed to tell its leaders which candidate members want to endorse when the AFL-CIO (which includes the letter carriers union and 64 other unions) meets next week to see which (Democratic) candidate the giant labor organization will back. Hopefuls listed on the letter carriers union mail ballot included Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley. Republicans listed were George W. Bush Jr., Steve Forbes, Elizabeth Dole and John McCain. But it now appears that the AFL-CIO may delay its endorsement. That would make the letter carriers results moot, but still interesting. Most polls, purporting to show how people will vote, interview about 1,100 people. By contrast, the letter carriers union is asking a lot more people in a lot more places.

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