Thanks to stealth-style action, at least 13--maybe 14--agencies have the authority to pay workers up to $25,000 to clear out. The newest member of the federal buyouts-are-us club: the Chicago-based Railroad Retirement Board.

Just before it adjourned, Congress approved--and President Clinton signed on the same day--a catchall bill, including a surprise buyout program for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA had asked for buyout authority, as had the Agency for International Development, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and the Central Intelligence Agency. Congressional sources say buyouts for one of the other agencies also may have been approved.

All year long, Congress refused buyouts for the downsizing the VA. The agency--the third largest in the federal government--is subject to tremendous political pressure and is nearly always under attack by some group for failing to provide proper services.

But just before Congress left, it approved the VA buyouts--with a couple of differences that make buyouts more costly for the department but give it much greater flexibility in back-filling jobs:

* When most agencies give an employee a buyout--as much as $25,000 (before deductions)--they also must contribute the equivalent of 15 percent of that employee's salary out of agency funds to the Civil Service Retirement System.

But the VA is required to contribute 26 percent of salary for each employee who takes a buyout. In the case of a $100,000-a-year worker, the VA would have to make a $26,000 contribution to the federal pension fund.

* When a nondefense agency gives an employee a buyout, the agency's permanent job slot ceiling is reduced by one. If the job of the buyout taker is refilled (not a very smart move), the agency loses a permanent slot elsewhere.

To offset the VA's higher buyout cost, however, Congress doesn't necessarily require the VA to eliminate a job slot for each buyout taker. The idea is that if the VA's mission was to expand suddenly--perhaps because of an influx of patients from a war or some other major military operation--the VA could hire new people to staff its hospitals.

Congressional sources say the last-minute buyout approval happened so quickly, and with such secrecy, that hardly anyone knows whether Congress approved one of the other pending buyout requests--for AID, the Veterans Court of Appeals or the CIA. If one of those requests was approved, the best bet is that it would cover AID personnel involved in foreign operations, export financing and related programs--in other words just about anybody in AID. But again, that is rumor so far, not fact.

Bear in mind that buyouts are a management option. In some cases, the buyout authority may be agency-wide, but in others, it can be limited to a specific operation or even geographic location. Also, buyouts aren't an entitlement. Employees get buyouts only if the agency says so. Here's a list of agencies with buyout authority and the buyouts' expiration dates:

* Defense Department, through Sept. 30, 2001.

* National Aeronautics and Space Administration, through Sept. 30, 2000.

* Agriculture Department, through Sept. 30, 2000.

* Energy Department, through Dec. 31, 2003.

* Nuclear Regulatory Commission, through Dec. 31, 2000.

* Architect of the Capitol, through Oct. 1, 2001.

* Government Printing Office, through Sept. 30, 2001.

* Bonneville Power Administration, indefinite.

* Internal Revenue Service, through Jan. 1, 2003.

* Treasury Department--Inspector General for Tax Administration, through Jan. 1, 2003, and Financial Management Service in Chicago, through Jan. 31, 2000.

* General Services Administration, through April 30, 2001.

* Veterans Affairs Department, through Sept. 30, 2000.

* Railroad Retirement Board, through March 30, 2000.

Retroactive Raises? Insiders say that if Clinton delays implemention of next year's pay raise much longer, many agencies won't be able to get raises into January checks. Congress approved an average 4.8 percent increase for white-collar federal civil servants, although the White House sought to limit the raise to 4.4 percent. But actual pay tables--and pay increases--depend on how much of the raise the president allots to a national adjustment and how much he earmarks for locality raises. Until that decision is made, payroll experts can't process paychecks.

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

Tuesday, Dec. 21, 1999