Washington — President Reagan this week carved another notch in the formidable stick he has been wielding to control the federal payroll. In holding government white-collar employees to a relatively paltry 4.8 percent pay raise for the coming year -- a move that already has congressional blessing -- he expects to spend $4.5 billion less than he might have under federal law. perhaps with the air controllers' strike in mind, postal employees recently accepted a contract that raises their average base pay less than 11 percent over the next three years. The postal workers, however, will continue to receive regular cost-of-living raises.
Congress has agreed to reduce the cost-of-living raises for retired federal and military personnel from two to one a year and (judging by Capitol Hill activity) may give Reagan even more than he wants in reducing wage scales for civilian workers on federal construction sites.
All of this amounts to considerable substance following the President's first official (and highly symbolic) act upon assuming office: freezing the federal payroll. But the mounting victories are also as much a matter of timing as presidential will. Jimmy Carter was moving in much the same direction regarding government pay before he was deposed last year.
The key word in the pay raise issue is "comparability." As part of 1970 legislation, government officials each year determine how much federal employees might expect to earn if they held equivalent jobs in private industry. This year, such employees would have received a 15.1 percent raise using this formula.
The President must either accept this figure or submit a different one to Congress based on "economic conditions affecting the general welfare," among other things. Either house of Congress can veto the President under the law. But in its budget reconciliation legislation, House and Senate already have agreed to the 4.8 percent pay hike sought by the White House.
Since a "cap" has been placed on upper-level pay slots, some federal employees in fact will get less than the 4.8 percent (if any raise at all). In all, 1.4 million white-collar workers will be affected beginning Oct. 1 when fiscal year 1982 begins for the government.
The major exception to the heavy pay hold-down will be for military personnel , whom Reagan and Congress agree are underpaid. They are expected to get a 14.3 percent raise next month.
The 4.8 percent raise is the lowest received by government workers since 1973 . President Carter last year wanted to hold raises to 5 percent, but came under considerable election-year union pressure and agreed to a 9.1 percent hike. Carter also wanted to change the way "comprability" is figured, as several government studies in recent years have recommended, but failed to gain enough legislative support.
President Reagan's victories on budget and tax matters, coupled with the generally conservative and cost-conscious trend on Capitol Hill, may portend better chances of success this year however.
Under the White House proposal, comparability would be set at 94 percent of average nonfederal compensation and take into account local wage levels. Benefits as well as pay would be used in determining comparability, according to the Reagan proposal, "thus taking into account the fact that federal benefits exceed average private-sector benefits." The administration figures that such changes would save about $30 billion over the next five years.
On other federal employment matters:
The Reagan administration this week continued to stand firm on the air controllers' strike. Administration officials rejected AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland's call to "have half a heart" and renew negotiations with striking controllers.
The Labor Department recently proposed significant changes to the Davis-Bacon Act, which sets pay levels for construction workers under government contract. President Reagan is pledged not to repeal the law (as many of his supporters have urged), but now is faced with a least eight congressional proposals to eliminate Davis-Bacon altogether.