Despite their long-standing complaints about the fairness of federal law enforcement pay, employee groups yesterday rejected a Bush administration proposal for a regulatory remedy and said Congress should not give up its power to prescribe pay and retirement benefits for agents, criminal investigators and officers.

The employee groups acknowledged that it could take months, perhaps years, for Congress to reach agreement on a legislative solution but said the administration's plan, released Friday in an Office of Personnel Management report, offered only a few policy recommendations and almost no details on how agents and officers might be affected.

Perhaps as important, the groups contended in testimony before the House civil service subcommittee, the administration's proposal would put law enforcement compensation up for grabs every time the White House changed hands.

The OPM recommendations "fall far short of the decisive legislative action that is needed to address current problems before they undermine the ability of federal law enforcement agencies to fully protect the public," said Frederick E. Bragg, president of the FBI Agents Association.

The OPM's report "fails to outline any role for the affected employees . . . indicative of its arrogant belief that it is capable of independently developing systems that will be accepted by front-line federal law enforcement officers," said T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council.

In general, the employee groups, House members and OPM officials agreed that the government needs to update its 1948 definition of a law enforcement officer, address differences in pay, overtime and retirement for officers who perform similar duties and improve the pay of new agents in high-cost cities.

But the employee groups said they had no interest in following the model of the Department of Homeland Security, where a new pay system will be implemented through regulation as part of an effort to create a more flexible personnel system.

"The DHS system was not designed with law enforcement needs in mind, does not have an actual track record to demonstrate its efficacy," Bragg said.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, noted that the administration's plan recommends a second tier of retirement benefits for officers who do not qualify for full benefits under the statutory definition. The proposed second tier would provide annuities falling between the most generous law enforcement retirement formula and the regular civil service retirement formula.

"I am aware of no example in the federal government where retirement benefits are set by regulation as opposed to statute," she said, including Homeland Security.

Louis P. Cannon, president of the District of Columbia Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, said that the OPM report raised as many questions as it tried to answer and suggested that efforts to pay officers fairly "will require congressional oversight and involvement."

Before the employee groups testified, Ronald P. Sanders, an associate director at OPM, outlined the administration's proposal, which he said tried to reflect the additional demands placed on federal law enforcement after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. OPM will be sensitive to employee and agency concerns if Congress signs off on a regulatory approach, he said.

Still, Sanders, accompanied by a half-dozen OPM officials, encountered skeptical questions from Rep. Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House civil service subcommittee, and some of its members, including Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

Davis, at the end of the hearing, indicated that she was a little frustrated by the OPM report because it was vague and did not address how to resolve such issues as why prison cooks receive full law enforcement retirement but customs and border protection officers do not.

Revamping law enforcement compensation, she said, "is not going to be an easy issue."

Diary Live Today

Glenn Kelly, spokesman for the FBI Agents Association, will discuss the new OPM report on federal law enforcement pay at noon today on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com