President Carter's plan to limit next month's federal-military pay raise to 5.5 percent got a boost yesterday when an important House committee did absolutely nothing for 40 minutes. That almost guarantees that the forthcoming raise will be $1.6 billion less than government workers had hoped it would be.

The lack of action is proof that this preelection Congress won't butt heads with the president, who has ordered federal employes to take reduced raises this year to help fight inflation. Government data says a civil service pay raise of 8.4 percent (price tag: $4.5 billion) is due to match industry wage gains.

President Carter has acknowledged that white-collar workers (there are 300,000 here, plus 60,000 uniformed military due to the raise) should get more. But he has proposed a 5.5 percent raise, costing $2.9 billion, in hopes it will set an example for labor and industry to follow.

The House committee, whose members tend to be sympathetic to federal and postal workers and their unions, had the chance yesterday to overturn that 5.5 percent raise. They could have voted in favor of a "disapproval" resolution by Rep. Herbert Harris (D-Va.). Harris, who represents a big chunk of bureaucratland, wants the higher raises put into effect. But that will not happen unless either the Senate or House approves his resolution to "disapprove" Carter's 5.5 percent raises.

Committee members had the choice of voting for the Harris resolution and pleasing their federal employe constituents and most of the Washington area. Or they could have rejected the resolution, pleasing the president and probably most of their nonfederal constituents who are in a decidedly anti-government mood, partly because of things Congress has or has not done. The third option, the one taken by most members of the Post Office-Civil Service Committee, was to play hooky from the meeting so no choice had to be made.

Chairman Robert N.C. Nix (D-Pa.), in dark glasses, studied the small crowd and waited for enough members to make a quorum to have a meeting. One got the impression that the veteran legislator has seen this sort of thing before.

Harris and Rep. Michael O. Myers (D-Pa.) were first on the scene. Myers left when it became apparent there would not be enough players for a game. Others wandered in and out, never enough for a quorum. Richard C. White (D-Tex.) was there, as were Trent Lott (R-Miss), Gene Taylor (R-Mo.) and Ralph H. Metcalfe (D-I11). Gladys N. Spellman (D-Md.) arrived as the meeting broke up. Others on the 25-member committee stayed away, but some sent staffers to count noses in case it was important they show up, or stay away.

Even before the session was supposed to begin, Harris expressed doubts a quorum could be found. He said he would take his resolution of disapproval (which would mean an 8.4 percent pay raise) directly to the House floor for a vote.

Washington area members, the only politicians who would dare vote for a higher federal pay raise, realize in their heart of hearts they're fighting a lost cause. This just isn't the year for Congress - whose members got a $12,900 boost last year - to do anything funny with federal pay, like raising it.

There is one bright spot of sorts in the proposed 5.5 percent raise. It is still a raise. President Carter could have proposed a 2 percent increase, or 1 percent, or nothing. From the way things are going, it is obvious Congress would buy any proposal he made, especially if it meant doing nothing.

Edward F. Preston, assistant director of the Office of Management and Budget, is the luncheon speaker at today's International Personnel Management meeting at the Fort McNair Officers Club. An overflow crowd of supergraders is expected since Preston will talk about executive development under the new civil service reforms.

123456789: That is how many digits your personal zip code will have by 1983, when the present 5-digit address code is expanded to a 9-digit system. While it may make life even more miserable for antinumber people, consider the plight of postal workers. Not only will they (or their machines) have to look at all those numbers, but there will be fewer people looking at more numbers.

The postal service expects to eliminate thousands of jobs, claiming the new 9-digit zip code will allow to 9 workers and 1 machine to take over 20 jobs now held by human beings.