If you are past worrying about the threat of a Y2K computer meltdown, consider another possible threat: a September 2000 shell game played with the paychecks of federal workers.

The question is: Are budget spin doctors so desperate that they are thinking of using that old anti-creditor line, "the check is in the mail," against federal workers?

The worst-case scenario goes like this: Budget writers will try to cut costs for fiscal 2000 (which ends Sept. 30) by delaying one and maybe even two federal paydays until October. That would make the cost of those paydays a fiscal 2001 problem.

Moving a payday or two into the next fiscal year would "save" tens of billions of dollars for the current fiscal year. It is such a silly idea that, in Washington terms, it makes sense.

But some congressional Republicans say the pay-delay plan is a non-issue, a politically inspired "threat" that doesn't exist.

Whatever the truth, a growing group of pro-fed politicians isn't taking any chances. They say such fiscal sleight of hand is being explored by "top officials," which could include administration officials as well as members of Congress.

Most top officials and politicians, by the way, are paid monthly. They would not be affected by any such pay delay.

Nervous members of the House--whose concerns were outlined in the Federal Diary on Oct. 20--sent a letter to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), asking him to head off any budget maneuver that would trim fiscal 2000 spending by moving one or two federal paydays from September into October.

This week, an equally worried, bipartisan group of senators signed a letter to President Clinton alerting him to a possible payday shuffle. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) initiated the letter, which also was signed by Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Charles S. Robb (R-Va.), Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.).

The Senate letter to the White House said that it is "our understanding that some officials may attempt" to delay paychecks. That, the letter said, would work a hardship on federal workers who live from "paycheck to paycheck." The letter said it would be "unconscionable to penalize federal employees because the federal government is having difficulties with its own budget." The letter reminded the White House that federal salaries already lag behind those in the private sector.

Leaders of both political parties have promised to protect the Social Security surplus, and both sides are terrified of being identified in the minds of voters as the ones who led a raid on Social Security because they couldn't balance the budget.

Although the alerts are bipartisan, some congressional Republicans say the possibility of a payday delay is being hyped to make them look bad--and to make Democrats look good when it doesn't happen.

Any attempted pay delay could present legal problems for Congress. It is illegal not to pay federal civil servants for services performed. That is why the White House was staffed by political appointees and interns during the last government shutdown, a repeat of which both parties are anxious to avoid this year.

Bottom line: If it turns out you don't need your New Year's 2000 survival kit--food, water, medicines and cash to last until the computers return to normal--don't eat, drink, take or spend it. If there is any truth to the payday delay warning, you may need a stash to ride out a different kind of problem next fall.

Don't panic. But do stay tuned. This may not be a drill.

Postal Bottleneck When you tell someone you are going to mail a package on your lunch hour, is that just another way of saving goodbye for the day?

Edward C., a downtown federal worker, called yesterday with this observation: "You wrote recently that an ex-postmaster general (or two) . . . now favor . . . privatization of the [Postal Service]. Maybe they have tried to mail a package recently!

"At about 1 p.m. [Tuesday], I went into the Washington Square postal office. There were 14 customers in line and three clerks working at one station, and 13 people [in line] and one clerk at the so-called Postal Store. I ran out of time before I could get my package [weighed, metered and] in the mail. My next stop . . . was a private mailing service. Quick service. My question: Have any top postal officials tried to mail a package lately?"

That sounds like a rhetorical question. Now that the Postal Service has mastered the art of next-day delivery, it may be time for same-day service during peak business periods--like lunch time.

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

Wednesday, Oct. 27, 1999