Washington Sick Joke: There is this guy who has trouble keeping a job. He has been years finding himself.

First he worked for Packard plant until it shutdown. Then the New York Herald Trib hires him two days before it folds. Later he sells Edsels. For awhile he is in the clothing business -- Nehru suits. Then he joins the Stassen for President campaign. Finally he signs on with Chrysler.

Then one day the happy federal form arrives. He calls his aging mother (reversing the charges) long distance:

"It's me, mom," says he.

(Slightly audible groan) What?" says she.

"I've got great news," says he.

"What?" says she.

"I've landed this terrific federal job. With the government. No kidding," says he.

"With the government," says she. "Thank God!"

"It means I can pay you and pop back, at last," he says. "And marry Peggy Sue. It means security for life. I start Monday. A regular paycheck."

"Great son," says she. "I'm so proud. Where will you be working?"

"At the Federal Trade Commission," says the reformed loser. End of story.

The unfunny part of it is that the Federal Trade Commission is in a heap of trouble. Unless Congress acts with undue speed, the FIC is temporarily out of business as of midnight tonight. Finished. Kaput.

Because of a congressional budget squabble, the FTC has been living on borrowed time, and operating on borrowed money (from a sister agency, the International Communication Agency). FTC's funds ran out about 45 days ago and Congress let it take a $9.8 million short-term payroll for 1,700 employes, continue trying cases in court, writing memos and doing other things federal agencies do.

That money, and authority to operate, expires at midnight. And the Attorney General has ruled that FTC will be in violation of the law if it brings in people to do anything other than finish up their affairs, turn off the water and straighten the blinds.

Congress frequently practices brinkmanship with federal agencies, holding up funds or refusing to approve budgets for a variety of reasons. HEW -- and other agencies -- have missed payrolls because of Senate-House squabbles over abortion funding, or in some cases whether the Senate and House budget conferees will meet on the Senate side of the Capitol, or the House side.

In past these exercises have become routine. Almost comic, except to workers whose paychecks are held hostage. Well, the Attorney General says the game is over. It stops now, and forever more, says Benjamin Civiletti.

Either Congress empowers an agency to function and pay its people, or it doesn't. In which case, he said in a letter to the president, the Justice Department will uphold the law that forbids agencies to operate when they don't have money or authorization from Congress.

Many members of Congress think the Senate and House should perform their budget functions on time, or take payless paydays with other federal workers. The Justice Department apparently agrees.

The department's message to Congress is simple: either fund government operations on time, or shut the machinery off. Don't ask people to work, and disburse money illegally, on the promise that -- some day -- they will be paid.