THE INTRADICTORY goals of the federal pay system are to establish uniformity and leave room for flexibility at the same time. It can't be done, and right now the system leans too far in the first direction. Unlike other large employers, the government, in the name of a false evenhandedness, makes no allowance for regional differences in the costs of living and labor. The big federal pay grid also squeezes too many disparate occupations together. The government sometimes overpays; just as often it can't compete for critical skills it needs.
A bill has now been approved 19 to 4 in the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee that would address these problems. It raises the possibility of a major reform of the federal pay system, if not in this year and this Congress then perhaps the next. Federal pay would be indexed to increase automatically each year with the government's broadest measure of private compensation, the employment cost index. Discrepancies that have built up over the years between federal and private pay in high-cost labor markets would also be gradually reduced by the introduction of regional differentials.
Authority to create special pay rates where necessary for the government to compete would be expanded, and where the basic pay grid didn't fit a given occupation, a new grid could be developed for it alone. The administration likes much of the extra flexibility the bill would provide. But it doesn't like the loss of the discretion the president now has in proposing the annual pay raise, or the limits that would be imposed on him in phasing in regional differentials or the likely cost of the House bill. The Senate must also be heard from; its Committee on Governmental Affairs is scheduled to mark up a bill with some similar provisions next week.
These are complicated matters and difficult politically as well, and the House bill may not be where Congress ends up. But government pay policy is now counterproductive in too many ways, and the good news is that Congress and the administration both seem to be moving in the right direction to correct it.