Government whistle-blowers who are long on work problems, but short on cash to defend themselves from sometimes vindictive bosses may be getting some financial assistance from Uncle Sam.

Currently federal agencies can spend all the time and money necessary to help grind up employes who run afoul of officials who want them punished, or fired. Not all of the employes are heroes. But in some cases they may save the taxpayers millions of dollars only to find themselves in the poorhouse for pointing out illegal or dumb things their agencies have done.

The new civil service reform law set up the Merit Systems Protection Board to help sort out whistle-blower cases. Within the MSPB is the Office of Special Counsel which acts as an advocate for workers whose careers are in a sling.

But fighting Uncle Sam -- who enjoys unlimited supplies of money, material and lawyers -- can be time-consuming. And very, very costly if you don't happen to own a government agency. The Office of Special Counsel does not now award attorneys fees. So the employe -- or his or her union -- is out the legal dollars. That could change if the Special Counsel gets the green light from the General Accounting Office.

GAO is the congressional agency with the authority to tell agencies what they can, and cannot do, with dollars.

Special Counsel H. Patrick Swygert has asked GAO if his office has authority to pay "reasonable attorneys' fees" in certain cases. GAO will rule one way or the other, perhaps soon.

If GAO allows the payments, it will be a boon for federal workers. Many of the whistle-blowers can now win their cases in the media and the courts, and still lose their shirts as the legal bills pile up. Hourly charges of $50 to $100 for defense preparation and/or court time are not unusual.

Payment of legal fees would also be a boon to Washington's big legal community. A growing number of attorneys here are starting to specialize in civil service personnel cases. Many more will do so if they can be assured they will be paid for it.