THE BUSH administration and House and Senate conferees are on the verge of overhauling the federal pay system. The revival can't come a moment too soon. The present federal pay process is creaky and outdated. It discourages the bright outside talent most needed in government, and it is unattractive to outstanding professionals. Many of them are finding early retirement preferable to the low status and poor image brought on by years of bipartisan battering. The nation's 3 million federal workers have been further demoralized by the budget-related government shutdown and the scare of near-wholesale furloughs.

That federal pay reform could even approach enactment in this contentious climate is remarkable. That congressional backers -- led by Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) -- and the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget could reach agreement on a landmark proposal is good news for the federal work force and for the citizens who depend on them.

For the first time starting in 1994, federal pay will be linked to the local labor market and set on a path that will close the gap between federal compensation and private (and state and local government) rates. Under the new program, government administrators will be equipped with improved tools to attract and retain essential skills and talents. Now, in addition to offering job security and the opportunity to serve the public, the government will be able to offer top prospects special recruitment bonuses. The most qualified workers will be eligible for retention and relocation bonuses.

Some of the reforms will be phased in over time; others can occur almost immediately. For instance, upon enactment the president will designate the high-cost areas eligible for an immediate 8 percent increase, and administrators can tack 5 percent increases on regular starting salaries for entry-level professionals and make it possible for retired military and civilian workers to return to service in critical areas without losing their annuities.

Today's markup should move swiftly, and passage by the House and Senate is expected before adjournment thanks to leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. "Mark my words," OPM director Constance Newman said in May, "we will have some pay reform by the end of this session." She was right on the mark.