The sensitive issue of pay equity has touched off a rare public fight between a Democratic House member, Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), and the General Accounting Office, the congressional investigatory arm.

Oakar said she asked the GAO on March 7, 1989, to study why women are paid only 62.8 percent as much as men in the federal government. The GAO still hasn't done it, she said.

The GAO study was requested by nine members of Congress after a bill to require such a study stalled in the Senate. Pay equity is the phrase used to describe the wage gap between men and women.

Bernard Unger, head of the federal human resource management issues section of the GAO, said, "We were late in starting. . . because of staffing constraints. I am the accountable party. We started in January, and we've been working at a reasonable pace given the technical nature of the issue."

Unger said the GAO plans to contract out the study and he hoped to have the "request for a proposal" published this summer.

He said he has 3 1/2 people working on the project, which is a study of the "status and effectiveness of the federal government's current job evaluation system" -- an effort to find out if bias has crept into the classification of federal jobs.

Unger said the 5,000-employee GAO contracts out relatively few studies unless the office finds it "needs expertise it doesn't have a large quantity of," -- in this case, job classification experts.

"If we find that the system is biased, our methodology will come under scrutiny. If we find the system is not biased, we will come under even more scrutiny. We want to be very careful, take a little more time, to be assured we have a sound approach," he said.

The GAO did a study of how to do a study of federal pay equity in 1985. At that time, the office found that women working for the federal government were paid 62.8 percent as much as men, for state and local government, 71.5 percent, and in the private sector, 56 percent.

The report found that "there is a wage gap between men and women. . . {but} what is not clear is why this wage gap exists and whether discrimination plays a part."

For example, the 1985 report said, "Some argue that part of this gap is explained by market forces, noting that many women choose to enter certain lower-paying jobs that allow them to handle both traditional family duties and work outside the home. Others suggest, however, that at least part of the wage gap is attributable to employers' failure to pay women 'comparable worth' for their work."

Thirty-five states have conducted studies of pay equity and some have adjusted their pay scales accordingly, the GAO said. The state of Washington found that state employees in female-dominated jobs were paid 20 percent less than workers in male-dominated jobs that were gauged to be of comparable difficulty and value.