Congress, losing its perks, looks at others' Lawmakers target fringe benefits of federal workers.

March 31, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The wave of public indignation that has led Capitol Hill to abolish some perquisites enjoyed by members of Congress now threatens the life style of federal bureaucrats everywhere.

Upset by President Bush's attacks on lawmakers' privileges, Democratic congressional leaders have begun reviewing those enjoyed by federal officials.

Like members of Congress, federal employees have long enjoyed gymnasiums and fitness centers that were either free or at a minimal cost, like $180 a year for the Pentagon gym and swimming pool.

Other privileges include free parking and subsidized meals, sometimes prepared by personal chefs and served in private dining rooms adorned with freshly cut flowers.

For the upper echelons there are chauffeured limousines, military aircraft and a fleet of 1,200 non-military planes, mostly maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration, FBI, Department of Agriculture and NASA.

Officials maintain that most of the aircraft are needed to enable the agencies to fulfill their functions.

Even low-level federal employees receive valuable benefits including unusually generous health insurance benefits along with low-cost life insurance and generous pension plans, a spokesman for the American Council of Life Insurance said.

The Office of Personnel Management, the independent agency that administers the merit system of federal employment, encourages the use of fitness centers by federal employees.

Last year, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service bought memberships in a health club for 125 employees who worked at a building six blocks from its headquarters, which has its own gym. The agency abandoned the plan after it was disclosed by the Washington Times.

The CIA provides free medical, financial and alcohol and drug abuse counseling, free parking and a free fitness center.

The agency also operates a singles network, obtains reduced-price tickets to shows and sporting events and has a day-care center that costs $95 to $130 a week.

Such perquisites have fueled the perception that federal bureaucrats, like members of Congress, are a privileged class not subject to the same travails as normal citizens.

Indeed, some critics say these privileges have blinded bureaucrats and members of Congress to the critical need for affordable health care and dependable air transportation.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said Sunday that Congress, having abolished the House bank and quadrupled to $400 the dues for the House gymnasium, would now examine the perquisites of the federal bureaucracy.

He noted that chauffeur-driven limousines were used not only by Cabinet secretaries and their deputies, but by those as far down the ladder as deputy assistants.

Such privileges have upset an electorate that is suffering acute economic distress, in the opinion of some scholars.

"The people in government are not a privileged class, and once they begin acting like one, we get mad as hell," said Stephen J. Wayne, professor of government at Georgetown University.

Employees who use the State Department's 800 parking spaces are charged $15 a month toward the cost of parking attendants. All employees and family members may use a commercial bank in the State Department building.

The Pentagon's gymnasium and swimming pool, open to everyone from the lowest enlisted person to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, costs employees $180 a year. The Pentagon has 8,700 parking spaces, which are free for those in car pools. Others pay $2.25 a day.

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