Only in Washington could you find a crowd of 400 otherwise normal-looking party-goers who laugh, joke and go positively bonkers over certification requirements in the Contract Dispute Act or guidelines for choosing the level of agency policy articulation.

What might have sounded like technical gobbledygook to a novice ("Oh, honey, speak English," cried Janice McKinnon, the wife of Civil Aeronautics Board chairman Dan McKinnon) was sheer delight to the attorneys, judges, agency heads, White House aides and commission chairmen roaming through Anderson House last night.

"We're talking about change in administrative procedure," said Joan Z. Bernstein, a former vice chairman of the group--and she said it with relish, as if she were describing the latest White House scandal.

What brought everybody together was something called the Administrative Conference. Reuben B. Robertson III, a senior conference fellow and chairman in 1980-81, described it as an expert advisory group that looks "analytically and dispassionately at the way government works and then recommends ways to make it run more efficiently and fairly."

"They stick their noses into everybody's business," explained Federal Trade Commission chairman James C. Miller III in down-to-earth terms.

"People usually refer to it as the 'little-known Administrative Conference,' " said Robertson. "And then they look it up in the telephone book under 'L.' "

Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III shared the receiving line with conference chairman Loren A. Smith and executive director Stephen L. Babcock.

"They get together to improve the regulatory process, which means less regulation, more streamlined regulation, more common-sense regulation. That's why we're very interested in sponsoring it," said Meese.

Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger said he used to participate when he was at the Nixon Office of Management and Budget; he was there last night because "I'm a friend of the chairman, and I was invited to come."

Conferees pay for the party out of their own pockets, and last night's buffet fare included roast beef, baked ham, cold asparagus and strawberry shortcake and bananas flambe'.

When the party-goers weren't talking technical, they were talking ties--specifically, the ties with Adam Smith's picture on them. The conservative, libertarian, free-market types have worn them for years to immortalize the 18th-century political economist.

"If I wore an Adam Smith tie, it would look as if I'm trying to pretend I was a political appointee," said one career civil servant.

Not having that worry were Meese, Miller and Smith, who straightened their Adam Smith ties, then lined up together to be photographed. It reminded Miller of the night he and his kids went for ice cream not long ago.

When one of the kids noticed he was wearing his Adam Smith tie, Miller asked them who Adam Smith was. One child didn't know, one thought he did and one said she was sure. She recalled everything her father had taught her, from the "no free lunch" bit, to the latest books on "Real Men Don't Eat Quiche" and "Real Women Don't Pump Gas."

As Katrina Miller, 13, explained it to her family: "Adam Smith was a great economist who said, 'Free men don't eat lunch.'"