Consider the plight of the federal VIP car-shopper. Under orders to cut the gas and also get the lead out, some of them have been having a devil of a time picking their 1979 model cars. It is a case of dignity vs. more practical considerations.

This is the time of year when government personages in exalted positios, also known as "public servants," decide when sort of wheels they want the taxpayers to provide to carry them to and from the home-place.

Back in the good old days B.C. (Befor Carter) a cabinet officer and ranking subordinates could order just about any kind of vehicle (American) they wanted. But the good old days are gone-well, almost.

Federal officials are under pressure from the president (who still rates a limousine for security reasons) to stop parading around in limousines. Also he wants them to use cars that are less flashy, and use less gasoline. That presents a problem, because cabinet officers didn't get to be cabinet officers because they have small opinions of themselves and their worth. And most, frankly, don't like the idea of whizzing about Washington in a Pinto of Chevette.

Still, they have been told to get cars that get at least 19 miles to the gallon (other federal cars must get 22 m.p.g.), and that has caused some problems. Economy with elegance is the watchwood. This is some of the government's top-ranked officials have solved their 1979 official transportation dilemma.

Energy Secretary James Schlesinger has taken delivery of a 1979 Ford Granada (21 m.p.g.). About 20 of his top staffers who also rate cars also have a Ford in their future.

The secretary of labor ordered a new Olds 98 (diesel). Some of his staffers will make do with Olds 88s.

The postmaster general wanted and Olds diesel but couldn't get one. So he is taking a regular Olds 98.

Housing and Urban Development has a 1979 Buick LeSaber. Her top assistant gets a Mercury Monarch.

The secretary of agriculture now gets about in a 1978 Mercury Cougar. But he and his top staff are getting in 4 new Buick Century's and will order two other 1979 cars shortly.

Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal has ordered a Pontiac Bonneville for 1979; other VIPs there will get Dodge Aspens and Mercury Zephers. Blumenthal now has a 1977 Mercury Marquis.

The secretary of defense will trade his Bonneville for an Olds 98 diesel as will his deputy.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will go from a Chevrolet Caprice to a new Dodge St. Regis. Under-secretaries will make do with new Chrysler LeBarons.

Army Secretary Clifford Alexander is keeping his 1977 Mercury Monarch and the Army chief of staff has also declined to renew the lease on his same-year Mercury.

The secretary of the navy, chief of Naval operations and commandant of the Marine Corps will trade in Caprice's for Dodge St. Regis models.

Air Force will get a Dodge St. Regis for its secretary to replace a Chrysler Newport, and the Air Forse chief of staff will get a Dodge for his Caprice.

Ironically, the Environmental Protection Agency's top two are keeping their Mercury Monarchs (1978) models for now, but plan to get newer cars which meet EPA mileage standards this year.

Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califono Jr., continues to use a Ford LTD (his staff uses a pool of Fairmonts and Granadas) util it can be decided which 1979 models will be leased. They hope to get at least one diesel from Oldsmobile.

Transportation for the secretary of transportation will be a 1979 Pontiac Bonneville (19 m.p.g.), after trading in a Ford LTD.

All of the above cars, and hundreds more for lesser rank officials and car pools, will have reading lights, two-way radio communications and in the case of Cabinet officers, a telephone linked to the White House.

Because of federal mileage standards which get tougher each year, most of the 1979 models will have to be traded in next year (and re-equiped with VIP things) for cars that get even better things.

So unless Detroit can do what the English, Germans, French, Japanese and others are already doing-build cars that get better mileage-the cabinet officer of the mid-1980s may find himself in the back seat of a Honda, Rabbit or Pinto. It isn't easy, being a symbol during the gas age.