Every so often, metro Washington's 359,628-strong bureaucracy is hit with a "decentralization" scare.

The panic also affects merchants, real estate speculators and others who live off the $670 million monthly federal payroll faucet. The panic usually starts with somebody in Congress wondering aloud why there are 369,628 federal workers here and not somewhere closer to the people -- like his or her district, for instance.

Word of decentralization is usually proclaimed (often overproclaimed) in banner headlines. They suggest that all 38,249 HEW workers [the town's biggest employer] may be heading for Chicago, or that number two, Navy, [with 35,036 civilians here] will relocate in San Diego.

Well, get ready for another decentralization scare. This time, perhaps a really scary one.

Under the watchful (and serious) eye of Congress, government this week launched a new study.Purpose is to identify federal agencies, functions and people who could do whatever they do here just as well (or better) in Walla Walla, Topeka or French Lick, Ind.

The agencies making the relocation, decentralization study are the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and General Services Administration. OPM handles the personnel side of government, OMB policy for the White House and GSA which as, among other things, the trucks to move people if needed.

Today, most cabinet secretaries and agency heads will be receiving letters from the triagency study group. They will ask officials to identify what parts of their operation might be candidates for relocation.

All this is because of an amendment to the civil service reform act put in by Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa). His language mandates the study (and he hopes some positive results) to be in the hands of Congress by next January at the latest.

In July 17, this column pointed out that the Leach amendment was coming along. At that time the federal population here was 354,684, indicating there has been some growth since Leach suggested Washington may be overcrowded with government functions. (Actually the federal job figure here is even higher, because it does not include CIA. NSA and some other intelligence outfits excluded from regular nosecounts).

Although federal employment here is growing slightly, Washington has about the same percentage of the federal work force [out of a grand total of 2,861,714 worldwide] it has held for years. But Defense, in particular, has done some decentralizing, usually to please a member of Congress (on the budget committee) who likes the idea of moving installations, jobs and federal funds to his area.

Housing and Urban development went through a decentralization some time back, but in recent months it has been regrouping here or in begger cities.

The new study, if it turns out the way Leach and others hope, will identify functions that could be spread throughout the nation. Not just in the 10 regional subcapitals [New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Kansas City Chicago, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle] set up during the Nixon administration.

Many past moves, especially by Defense, have been to the South. That is partly because so many military installations are there, but mostly because so many powerful committee chairman were from the South. But that picture has changed somewhat, and there appears to be sentiment in Congress to spread the government throughout the country, with emphasis on medium-sized towns.

(There is some speculation in Congress that decentralization could pick up steam if the District wins full voting rights, and gets two senators and a voting member of the House. The idea there is that many states would demand "equal treatment" with increased federalization in their areas).

Several cabinet officers -- hoping to get into the elective side of politics when their appointed tours here end -- are believed to be anxious to swing more federal jobs, and clout, for their home areas. They will be especially diligent in filling out the reports outlining who might take part in decentralization.

It will be months before the moves -- if any -- begin to take shape. But plans are in the works, especially for agencies like Navy, Army [23,296 jobs here]; Treasury [18,009 local employes]; Justice [16,879] and Interior and Transportation, each with just over 10,000 workers.

Jobs: Justice has a temporary Grade 11 or 12 opening [through September] for an equal employment specialist. Call Valerie Willis at 376-8641... HUD also has temporary openings for Grade 5 personnel/pay inquiry assistants with PACE eligibility. Call Ric Brady at 755-5398.