THE FEDERAL pay process has become a joke. Every year a study is made of how much it would take to make federal pay rates "comparable" with those in the private sector. Every year the study, whose methodology is fixed, comes to the conclusion that a vast gap exists between the federal rates and private ones; this year the differential was said to range from 22 to 39.6 percent.

The president, no matter of which party, then exercises his statutory authority to ignore the study and recommend what, over the years, has become considerably less; President Bush has just proposed a raise of 3.5 percent Jan. 1. The recommendation gives the leaders of the federal employee unions a stage from which to say their members are oppressed; "unconscionable," one said this year. Congress then clucks sympathetically, but if it changes the presidential recommendation, it does so only marginally -- and everyone goes home until it's time to do it over again next year.

The fact is, some federal workers are indeed underpaid by private labor market standards; many others are not. No single figure or even set of national figures can capture all the variations. The present process, a reform when instituted 20 years ago, has become creaky and outdated. Like the federal pay system generally, it seeks in the name of evenhandedness a national uniformity that does more harm than good.

A new reform awaits in Congress to repair this older one. Committees in both House and Senate have sent forward legislation that would: raise the federal pay grid each year according to the national employment cost index; give special raises in certain high-cost labor markets to make federal pay rates there comparable over time; and increase the present power of administrators to give special raises to compete in certain job categories as well. The president would have less authority than now to limit raises; the administration objects to both the principle and possible cost of that. But those differences are soluble. If there isn't time to pass the legislation this year, it or something like it should be passed in the next Congress. Then 20 years from now, when this process, too, will have begun to show its age, they can manufacture it again.