When Charles L. Morris retired from his Treasury Department job overseeing the movement of $1 bills from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to Federal Reserve banks, his pension was about $400 a month. Today, after 23 years of retirement, it's $1,608.
"Years ago, I could foresee the pickle this country was going to be in and it has come to pass," said Morris, who just turned 81. "I got interested because of the federal debt, but then it dawned on me that my COLA is part of the problem. You know, it has gone up quite a bit more than the consumer price index."
Congress gave a 2 percent raise payable this month to active federal workers and a 4.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, to those who are retired.
Since 1969, the value of federal retirement benefits has increased nearly 10 percent above inflation, according to statistics compiled by the staff of the House civil service subcommittee. At the same time, real federal pay has decreased nearly 18 percent.
The $10,000 salary earned in 1967 by an experienced GS-9 employee, despite all the raises since, has deteriorated to $8,244 today when inflation is taken into account, according to the subcommittee. A $10,000 pension in 1967 has grown to $10,988 today when adjusted for inflation.
The numbers starkly reflect a long-term trend in federal life: a growth in the value of retirement benefits and an erosion of pay for current work.
It's an intergenerational issue with ramifications far beyond the civil service.
Some experts on the federal service say they think that the discrepancy between this year's pay and cost-of-living increases not only hurts the quality and morale of the federal work force but emphasizes the wrong qualities in a government employee, seeming to reward retirement more handsomely than work.
Others, such as Martin Corry, director of federal affairs for the American Association of Retired Persons, say they think that comparison of the two groups, active workers and retired, is "coffee klatch talk" that has little merit. Federal retirees should be compared with other retirees, whose incomes are set, he said, and active workers should be compared with other active workers, whose incomes fluctuate with business cycles.
The National Association of Retired Federal Employees dismisses the comparison of federal comparability raises and retirees' cost-of-living increases as "not relevant."
"The government has made a contract with its retired workers" to protect them against inflation, said Robert Reischauer of the Brookings Institution, and if cost-of-living raises are withheld, the government would be "changing the rules after half the contract had been fulfilled" -- the workers' half.
But these views are not universally shared.
"You have to look at active workers and retirees as complementary parts of a compensation policy," said Dallas Salisbury, president of the Employee Benefits Research Institute.
He noted that most private pensions are not indexed to inflation; indeed, most retirees have no private pension, statistics show.
"Any social system that pays people more generously for not working than for working is bound to be unsuccessful," former House member Barber B. Conable Jr. (R-N.Y.) wrote in U.S. News & World Report three years ago.
Former congressman Hastings Keith (R-Mass.), cochairman of the National Committee on Public Employee Pension Systems, said the federal government is "overpensioned -- there's only so much money in the till."
Keith's group argues that cost-of-living increases should be limited to that amount of a federal retiree's pension "which is really needed to provide food, clothing and reasonable shelter."
Cost-of-living increases, he contends, account for half of the $45 billion annual cost of federal retiree pensions. "When Albert Einstein was asked man's most important invention," Keith said, "his answer was: compound interest."
Keith said his group's proposal is working well in Massachusetts, but the National Committee on Public Employee Pension Systems has so far been no match for the influence of U.S. retirees.
Federal retirees have linked their cause to that of Social Security recipients, "the most active political group in the country today," according to Kenneth T. Blaylock, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Blaylock is careful to state, as do leaders of other federal unions, that he thinks that retirees deserve their COLA and that he fought hard for it. "I have never supported pulling anybody down; I'm for pulling people up," he said.
He said federal retirees, by linking federal retirement cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security COLAs, have created "a much stronger group" than those that speak for active civil service workers.
The average federal pension is about $1,200 a month. (From 1969 to 1975, the rate of increase was also fueled by a "kicker" of one percent.) The average Social Security benefit for a couple is $867.
After the federal pay raise was signed by President Reagan on Dec. 31, "I guess my reaction is that its main policy consequence is to wreck the civil service," said Robert Ball, former longtime Social Security commissioner. "A 2 percent increase seems very low . . . very arbitrary."
Small pay increases "induce people at the margins to leave the moment they become eligible," said Charles Levine, deputy director of the National Commission on the Public Service. Office of Personnel Management figures show that the average retirement age was 59.6 in 1985.
Reischauer, the Brookings scholar, said, "Corporate wage increases change with the productivity and profitability of the industry. Somebody could say that the 'profit' of the government has been low and the 'company' is in financial straits; therefore, workers don't get a high wage increase." He said hourly pay is expected to rise about 4 percent this year in private industry.