The government's 20,000 "supergraders" smell a pay rise.And that is significant.

When the cautious, but savvy career people who run the daily operations of government start seriously sniffing dollar signs, it is a good bet that a salary raise is in the offing. Supergraders don't waste time on idle speculation.

People have been talking about an executive pay boost for six years. Former President Ford proposed one effective later this month. It would go to members of Congress, federal judges and political appointees. Also included would be the 20,000-plus people in the top of Grade 15, and all Grades 16 through 18 employees of government. Most of them - at least 8 of 10 - live in the Washington area.

The supergrade community was initally cautious, even aloof, when the pay talk started. But with only 11 days remaining for Congress to accept or reject, the supergraders are getting interested. They have excellent contracrs on Capitol Hill, and the word they get is that the raises will go through on schedule.

The raises - which are linked to a stiff code of conduct reform for the House and Senate - are being debated by a special House committee. Another panel is drafting an ethhics code. The Senate has already beaten down a serious attempt to kill off theraises so it looks like the supergraders' antenna is working well again.

For the benefit of supergrade workers here, this is what the raises would mean, beginning with March paychecks unless the Senate or House blocks them by the Feb. 20 deadline:

Grade 15, step 7 would move up to $40,545; step 8 would be $41,671; step 9, $42,979, and step 10, $43,923.

Grade 16, step, $39,629; step 2, $40,950; step 3, $42,271; step 4, $43,592; step 5, $44,913 and step would go to $46,234. Step 7, and and 9 of that grade would go to the new pay ceiling, which is $47,500.

Grade 17, step 1 would go to $46,423; steps 2, 3, 4 and 5 of GS-17 would all be at the new $47,500 ceiling.

Grade 18 would be a flat $47,500. The current ceiling for that Grade is $39,600.