Debate set to begin on federal pay raise


WASHINGTON -- Debate was expected to begin today on a proposed federal employee pay raise when the House takes up an appropriations bill for the Treasury Department, U.S. Postal Service and other government agencies.

The House was set to consider the bill last week, but postponed debate twice because lawmakers had not yet finished debate on other spending measures.

The average paycheck for Baltimore area federal workers would rise more than 3 percent next year under a proposal in the spending bill, which was approved last month by the House Appropriations Committee.

The suggested raise, which amounts to at least $1,130 for the average worker in the Baltimore area, is higher than what President Clinton outlined in his budget proposal last February -- but less than what federal workers say they're entitled to under a 1990 federal law.

Late last month, the House Appropriations Committee passed a measure offered by Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-5th, to provide a national pay raise and a slight increase in locality pay for federal workers.

Locality pay is aimed at gradually closing the gap between federal and private sector wages and varies from area to area.

Under Mr. Hoyer's proposal, Baltimore area workers would receive a locality pay increase of slightly more than 1 percent, along with a national pay raise of 2 percent.

A bipartisan advisory commission this week proposed curbing spending on federal retirement benefits and other entitlement programs -- a move lawmakers said would stir angry debate.

In its first public meeting, the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform suggested on Monday reigning in spending for federal retirees, mainly by increasing the retirement age and changing the way the government calculates increases in cost-of-living allowances (COLAs).

"Controversy will begin almost immediately," said Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., co-chairman of the 32-member panel. "If change is needed -- as we believe it is -- then we cannot nod in agreement to the first pleader who enters our office asking to be exempted from the duty of participation."

Federal employee unions such as the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) are staunchly opposed to any tinkering with retiree benefits, and are likely to fight any deep cuts.

The unions are wary of Mr. Kerrey, noting that in the past he has singled out retirement benefits for cuts. Earlier this year, he attempted to cut in half 1994 federal civilian and military COLAs, but the effort died in the Senate.

"We don't like any idea that's going to raise the retirement age or cut pay for federal employees," AFGE spokeswoman Jeanette Abrams said.

More specifics are expected before the panel releases its final recommendations Dec. 15.

Without tax increases or a reduction in benefits, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and federal employee retirement programs

are projected to consume all federal revenues by the year 2030, commission members said. More than 75 percent of current entitlement spending is for health care and federal civilian and military retirement programs, they added.

Lawmakers anticipate strong resistance, and warned of future fights before they unveil their proposals to curb the national debt.

Just last week, the Clinton administration proposed to greatly expand the veterans compensation program, an effort that conflicts with the commission's goals, said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

"My condolences ahead of time on what I know -- from first-hand experience -- will be a very difficult task in forming any consensus on these issues," said Mr. Domenici, the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. "I hope all of us will be more successful than past efforts in this area."

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are trying to defend COLAs. This time, the battle is being waged in a defense authorization committee.

Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee proposed restoring six months of COLAs for military retirees for 1995 and 1996 -- a move that would partly reverse a cut mandated by Congress last year.

This year, both military and civilian retirees were required to wait until April to collect their COLAs, a money-saving policy that is expected to continue in 1995 and 1996 for civilians. But under law, military retirees will have to wait even longer -- until October -- to receive their COLA benefits in the next two years.

The law is expected to save $2.36 billion in military COLAs and $788 million in civilian COLAs over the next five years, said James Hegarty, legislative assistant with the Federal Government Service Task Force.

Although the law saves money, Senate critics said that it unfairly costs military retirees. So last week, the committee suggested postponing civilian COLA payments until July 1 and speeding the military benefits to the same date.

"It's three months better for the military, three months worse for the civilian," Mr. Hegarty said.

Senators are still deciding who will offer this proposal when the defense authorization bill reaches the Senate floor.

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