Just when federal workers thought it was safe to prepare their personnel year 2000 household budgets comes word that there could be, repeat could be, maybe, some payday shuffling. Or not!

But before you seek employment elsewhere, read on. And remember, this is Washington, where the motto "be prepared" also means "be paranoid."

Whether the possibility of a pay delay is a bona fide Paul Revere-style warning (of real danger) or the result of too much caffeine ingested by nervous politicians remains to be seen.

Washington area members of Congress, whose constituents include about 15 percent of the nation's total federal employees, are taking no chances. They've been stung before and know that a little paranoia never hurt anyone. They have sent a "don't-tread-on-feds" letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Don't allow GOP budget-planners to tamper with federal pay, they say.

The letter was generated by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and signed by Republican Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), Frank R. Wolf (Va.) and Constance A. Morella (Md.). Democratic signers include Reps. James P. Moran Jr. (Va.), Elijah E. Cummings (Md.) and Albert R. Wynn (Md.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.).

The Hastert letter was prompted by an Oct. 12 Washington Post article ("Hill Conferees Adopt Defense Deferral Plan"). It outlined budget wheeling and dealing, and some creative accounting, designed to protect spending "caps" Congress set for fiscal 2000. The story said one measure "would postpone the expenditure of $2.2 billion by taking advantage of the fact that the military's final payday for fiscal 2000 falls on the last Saturday in September [2000] and could be rolled into the next week."

A Senate aide was quoted as saying that "there was nothing included in the defense appropriations conference report . . . last week changing the pay dates for any federal employee."

In a city where hints, rumors and nervous tics sometimes become policy or law, that was enough to sound an alarm for pro-fed politicians. An unnamed senior Republican staffer was quoted as saying nothing was going to happen to any federal payday of any federal employee, but sirens still went off.

Alerted that the last military payday of fiscal 2000 might be delayed a couple of days, folks who are paid to worry did so.

If a military paycheck is delayed, they wondered, could federal workers be next?

Feds' pay has been jerked around in the past by Congress and more recently by the Clinton administration. The Nixon administration once delayed a federal pay raise for three months, although federal employees eventually got back pay, thanks to a lawsuit by the National Treasury Employees Union. For the last six years, federal workers have received smaller pay raises, because of White House intervention, than promised them under the bipartisan 1990 pay law.

So it is no wonder that when somebody steps on the tail of the family cat, politicians who watch over federal employees think a big lion is coming to eat their flock. Sometimes they have been correct.

At any rate, the "threat" is now public. Whether it is real--or another example that this is the city of the worried well--remains to be seen.

Anybody who knows, really knows, what is going on is urged to call the Federal Diary immediately.

Retiree Raises

Federal and military retirees and people on Social Security will get a 2.4 percent cost-of-living adjustment in January. That's the final and official figure. In January of this year, the retirees got a 1.3 percent COLA.

The increase reflects inflation from the third quarter of 1998 to the most recent third quarter.

Social Security Administration officials say the average benefit currently is $785 and will increase to $804 in January. The dollar increase generally will be higher for federal retirees because their average annuity is more than $1,200 a month, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

Federal workers get pay raises--not COLAs--that are based on wage changes in the private sector that reflect pay increases, productivity and the like. They also are subject to political and budgetary considerations.

COLAs for retirees are linked to the rise in inflation--and not to other factors such as pay raises. In times of low inflation, retirees often get smaller raises than workers. But in periods of high inflation, like the 1970s, retirees often got COLAs that were much higher than raises for employees.

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

Wednesday, Oct. 20, 1999