Some people seem to think that Washington is nothing but overpaid, underworked bureaucrats, laced with an overabundance of politicians, journalists, lawyers, lobbyists and other suspicious characters. In other words, not a real place.

Many taxpayers assume (ask your out-of-town relatives) that except for the few civil servants they deal with, the whole federal establishment lives and works in the Potomac River Valley. Not so. There are about 330,000 feds in a metropolitan area of about 4 million people.

The vast majority of federal civil servants--about 86 percent--live and work outside the Washington area and away from agency headquarters. Many of them like it that way.

Even with locality pay differentials, which aren't that big, feds, especially in the middle and lower pay grades, often can make their salaries stretch farther if they are away from high-cost cities such as Washington. And when it comes to traffic congestion and time spent commuting, the Washington area is second only to Los Angeles as a pain in the bumper.

Being a fed away from Washington has other advantages. A Grade 14 civil servant in Birmingham, or Butte, Mont., or Duluth, Minn., may carry a lot more weight than a person in the same grade and job in Washington. Feds who have worked in Washington and the field point out that things are more casual in the field than in Washington and that they sometimes have more freedom to operate.

But when it comes time to attend a conference, a briefing or whatever, Washington is the place to go--on an expense account--for traveling feds.

Because Uncle Sam computes expense accounts differently from pay rates, some cities with higher locality pay rates than Washington have lower per-diem rates for visiting federal employees. Feds from those cities are paid more than their Washington area counterparts. They also receive a higher per-diem when visiting Washington than their Washington counterparts receive when visiting their cities.

This year, once again, the Washington area is the place most often visited by feds on business, according to the General Services Administration. The GSA sets federal per-diem (expense account) rates and keeps track of how many nights feds spend on the road on official business.

Arlington is the top spot for visiting feds to stay, followed by the District and Alexandria. In January, when new per-diem rates kick in, feds coming to the Washington area will be reimbursed up to $164 a day in expenses, with up to $118 of the total for lodgings and $46 for meals and incidentals--which, depending on where they eat, won't leave a lot for incidentals.

Other cities often visited by feds indicate that civil servants know how to have a good time--even while working--and like warm weather.

The second most often visited city by official federal travelers is San Diego (with a year 2000 per-diem of $142), followed by Los Angeles ($145), San Antonio ($133) and Las Vegas, where they must make do with $110 a day from Uncle Sam.

Other oft-visited cities, in order of the number of nights visiting feds spend in them, are Atlanta ($131), St. Louis ($115), Albuquerque ($98), Dallas ($135), Chicago ($176), New Orleans ($130), Oklahoma City ($103), Phoenix ($149 in season, $101 out of season), Orlando ($119), Seattle ($150), Norfolk ($147 in season, $93 out of season), San Francisco ($185), Denver ($125), Houston ($114), Kansas City, Mo. ($127), New York City ($244), Philadelphia ($164) and Baltimore ($152).

The per-diem rates, as you may have noticed, have nothing to do with locality pay differentials. For example, Houston feds are paid more than their Washington counterparts. But people sent from Washington to Houston are given $50 a day less to spend than Houston feds sent to Washington.

Those who would ask why feds in Houston are paid more, when the government has decided that it is more expensive to stay, and eat, in Washington, should consult their favorite astrologer.

Maybe that's why some feds, when talking about headquarters, say Washington is a great town to visit but they wouldn't want to live here.

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

Tuesday, Dec. 7, 1999