- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

Will the new federal war on fat, being led by Tommy G. Thompson, the rapidly slimming secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, be a true war, or a sound-bite serenade?

Telling people they are too fat, which most of them know, is one thing. Helping them to lose weight is another. Military personnel and federal law enforcement officers get time off to exercise. They are expected to do it, and not add any extra notches to their belts.

But many feds, especially those with low incomes and long commutes, feel they don’t have the time or energy to exercise. Those who do fast-food lunches at their desks are striking out twice.

Many workers say they would do something if the government would put its money where its mouth is. That is give them more flexibility to exercise at the office, help them pay some of the cost of gym memberships or help out with the tuition at weight-reduction classes.

The government already gives smokers a hand to help them quit. And most give employees who smoke break time during the day — look outside any federal building.

It is relatively easy for VIPs to lose weight — with the help of a staff, a chef and the ability to set their own pace. It is another for Joe Fed — on a much more limited budget and with less backup — to do the same thing.

Savvy investors

The American military is made up mostly of underpaid young people. But while many don’t have much disposable income or experience in investing, they clearly understand the benefits of long-term investing in a tax-deferred 401(k) plan.

Over the past 12 months, military investors in the Thrift Savings Plan’s international stock index fund earned a return of 52 percent, those in the small-cap fund saw a return of 58 percent and those invested in the Standard & Poor’s 500 index fund earned 38 percent.

Since February 2002, when they first were allowed to join the government 401(k) plan, a total of 408,250 members of the uniformed service — active and reserve — have signed up for the Thrift Savings Plan.

COLA confusion

Federal workers and members of Congress who think they get cost-of-living adjustments are wrong, and lucky that they are confused.

By law, cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) are limited to federal and military retirees and people who receive Social Security benefits. The annual COLA, which shows up in January checks, is based on changes in the cost of living as measured by the Labor Department’s Consumer Price Index (CPI). This year, the retirees got a 2 percent COLA.

Raises for federal workers — especially this year — are a lot more complicated.

Fortunately for the feds, their annual increases are supposed to be based on the cost of labor as measured by the Labor Department’s Employment Cost Index (ECI). The CPI and the ECI are as different as a horse and a cow, but many feds don’t know the difference.

This year feds got a 2 percent raise from the president, and more recently a 2.1 percent add-on from Congress. That was designed to give them pay raise parity with the military. That — Congress being more generous than the president — has been the pattern for the past 11 years, and it is likely to continue.

Federal and military personnel, and politicians who find it convenient, can continue to call their raises inflation adjustments, but in fact their annual raises have been running at about double the rate of inflation for a number of years.

Mike Causey, senior editor at FederalNewsRadio.com, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or [email protected].

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