Forget the chauffeur-driven limo. Forget the VIP parking lot at National Airport.

The latest status symbol among Washington government officials is the personal bodyguard, a perk that is costing taxpayers nearly $1.6 million each year and has at least one congressman up in arms.

"I can't imagine why the secretary of health and human services needs full-time bodyguard protection," Rep. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) said yesterday. "Some of these people are not even recognized by their neighbors. How can they justify the fact that they need protection?"

Dorgan, disturbed by press reports that officials often send bodyguards to the grocery store and on other personal errands ("It makes them feel like royalty"), asked the General Accounting Office to investigate. The GAO surveyed 15 federal agencies and found that they were spending nearly $1.6 million for bodyguards in fiscal 1986, in many cases without specific congressional approval. (And that's not including agencies protected by the Secret Service or the Department of Defense.)

Because of the increasing number of terrorist attacks, personal security has become of serious concern among leaders of government and business. However, Dorgan said a certain number of Cabinet officials are cashing in on the current climate of fear.

"I'm sure there are certain instances where threats exist," he said, "but Congress has never determined that the secretary of agriculture needs a full-time bodyguard."

One wonders what threats have been made against newly appointed Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng. But he was out of town yesterday. With his bodyguard.

And while Otis Bowen's neighbors may know who he is, few others would recognize the Health and Human Services secretary. But Bowen also has a full-time bodyguard. "Everybody kind of balks at the word," said department spokesman Campbell Gardett. "They prefer to call it a security person."

Whatever the term, it's the biggest perk to hit Washington since the invention of the car telephone.

"I think bodyguards are the hottest status symbol of all," said gossip queen Diana McLellan, formerly known as "The Ear" and now Washington editor of Washingtonian Magazine. "Of course, the highest sign of status in this town is whether the government thinks your life is worth stealing."

But Dorgan says if anyone's getting robbed, it's the taxpayer.

"It's the ultimate feather in a feathered nest," he said yesterday. The congressman has asked Rep. Jamie Whitten, House Appropriations Committee chairman, to investigate the bodyguard brouhaha.

"I don't object to Cabinet members being given protection when a specific threat exists," Dorgan told reporters. "but I don't think they need . . . to generally make the Cabinet member feel as though he or she is important."

Some agencies only use bodyguards while the executive is on official business overseas. Others use them more frequently. If they carry weapons, they do so under the protection of the U.S. government, as armed private bodyguards are illegal in the District of Columbia.

According to the GAO study, the government is running up annual bodyguard bills ranging from $1,700 for the Department of Commerce to $542,235 for the FBI. Among the other totals were $124,139 for HHS, $229,132 for the Department of Agriculture, and $103,900 for the Department of Education.

"Congress has never approved that type of spending," said Dorgan.

The study did not determine how the guards were being used, but Dorgan painted a colorful Washington scenario: "Tight-lipped bodyguards shadow their entourage, acting like they're accompanying a head of state."

Of course, this is not the first time Washington bodyguards have made the news.

In 1974, Henry Kissinger's bodyguard accidentally shot himself with his own submachine gun. In 1980, then national security affairs adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski worked out a deal with the Defense Department to provide him with a bodyguard. (His predecessor, Brent Scowcroft, went without one.)

In January of this year, Sen. Ted Kennedy's bodyguard was arrested hours before boarding a flight to South America, when he entered a Senate office building and asked the guard where he could park his two submachine guns, a pistol and 146 rounds of ammunition.

Bodyguard etiquette has naturally become a source of concern.

One party-goer recalls when former White House staffer Morgan Mason "had his own Marine," causing ripples of outrage among the less guarded.

"We have a lot of people who bring their bodyguards," said Martin (pronounced Mar-Tan), maitre d' and manager of The Jockey Club, the swank downtown restaurant where Nancy Reagan likes to lunch. "Sometimes we don't know who the people are."

The first lady's bodyguards always eat at a nearby table, Martin said, though other bodyguards sometimes wait in the lobby.

Does the restaurateur to the rich and powerful have a bodyguard himself?

"I don't need one," he said. "My wife is my bodyguard."