When a Cabinet officer falls - or is thrust - upon his or hew own sword, thousands of underlings - from pilot-fish political appointees to chauffeurs and career bureaucrats - can get caught in the ripple effect.

With that in mind, be advised that President Carter has shaken up the federal establishment like nobody since President Nixon. (It is fair to say that neither man would be flattered by the comparison, but there it is).

Object of the tension is, of course, that the entire Cabinet could change. With some prodding, the appointed elite of government has tendered its resignation. It is safe to say that official Washin ton now is devouring radio-TV news, gulping aspirin and stomach relievers at a pace that, if continued, could end the recession.

Not since President Nixon, safely elected to a second term asked everybody to submit resignations has this town been so jumpy over its collective hide.

When cabinet officers leave, they generally return to pursuits that make them more money and leave more time for golf, or their families. But in the wake of their departure, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people who were riding high find themselves scrambling for other employment to help pay the bills.

What scares people is that Carter, and Nixon, didn't need to ask for anybody's resignation. If they want somebody they appointed to go (with a few exceptions) they need only point to the door. The fact that the action was taken, in such dramatic form, is what provides the jolt.

In the midst of government reorganization and reform, the president has taken the unusual step of allowing his top team to say, out loud and at the same time, that they are willing to go.

Report cards have been issued. Lower-level officials will be graded. Those found wanting by the White House, or by replacements in departments - will be sent away with form letters expressing thanks for their dedicated service, and "regrets" that they are reutrning to their first love, unemployment.

Many people inside government believe the president is doing what he is doing out of genuine belief that it is time for some changes. But it also serves to remind those on the presidential coattails that there are no lifetime contracts in this business.

A number of people who are expressing "quiet confidence" they will be retained are nevertheless checking in with pals in trade groups, unions, law firms and the media to get a new reading on the #help wanted" situation.

In weeks ahead you will probably read, or hear, that the government has "ground to a halt," or some such. It hasn't and won't. Life goes on, and the wheels keep turn ing, thanks mainly to the career bureaucrats whose marvelous tunnel vision in these times is a blessing.

But life at the top is hectic these days, as it always is in summer school when report card time arrives.