- The Washington Times - Monday, April 2, 2007

A stealth pay raise in January?

By law, federal workers and uniformed military personnel get regular pay raises each January. The 2008 increase is likely to be at least 3 percent before locality adjustments, as budgeted by President Bush.

There is a good chance that the Democrat-controlled Congress will boost that amount to 3.5 percent or even 4 percent.

Just about everyone in government — except employees of the U.S. Postal Service and top federal executives — will get the January increase automatically with a component for folks in 30-plus localities, including Washington-Baltimore.

But there’s more for a lot of people.

In addition to the regular January pay raise, which everyone gets at the same time, slightly more than half of the white-collar federal work force will get a within-grade raise, or WIG, that will also be worth 3 percent. It’s an increase based on years of service. Most civil service grades have 10 steps.

Workers get a 3 percent raise for each of the first three years of satisfactory service. In the next three steps, they get that 3 percent raise every two years, and in the upper ranges of the grade they get a raise every three years.

Thanks to the miracle of compounding, each within-grade raise boosts the value of future pay increases, the amount workers and their agencies can contribute to their Thrift Savings Plan accounts, the value of their annual leave if they cash out time when they retire, and the retirement annuity itself.

Critics of WIGs, beginning with the Carter administration, call them “being there” raises that people get for showing up for work, rather than for outstanding performance.

Better than 99 percent of all feds get a within-grade raise, based on satisfactory or other service and time in grade. That, critics say, makes them virtually automatic.

Whether you love or hate the idea of WIGs, they are an important part of life in the federal service and a valuable but little-recognized benefit.

The Clinton administration wanted to eliminate within-grade raises, and the Bush administration is trying to do it through a variety of pay-for-performance systems tailored for different federal agencies. Most people endorse the idea of merit pay, but many say that it simply won’t work in government — and doesn’t work that well in the private sector — because bosses would play favorites.

In the government, WIG advocates argue, eliminating the raises would mean a return to the spoils system by giving political bosses a financial hammerlock on workers.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, WIGs are out there, and like a good wig, most people don’t even notice them.

Oversight or straitjacket

Efforts to tighten federal contract rules have produced another partisan split in Congress.

Democrats by and large favor a House-passed bill that would impose another layer of regulations on contracts, which they feel need a lot more scrutiny. If you doubt that contracting is out of hand, look at the newspaper reports of cost overruns and shoddy service.

Republicans in the House, led by Rep. Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, say a new layer of regulations won’t help anybody but the attorneys. Mr. Davis said that in an effort to keep feds from erring, the bill would put them in a straitjacket so they couldn’t do anything — right or wrong.

His solution: Hire and train top-notch federal contract and procurement people and “let them do their jobs.”

• Mike Causey, senior editor at Federal News Radio AM 1050, can be reached at 202/895-5132 or mcausey @federalnewsradio.com.

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