The SES (Senior Executive Service), the pearl of President Carter's reforms designed to make the bureaucracy more responsive, is in a heap of trouble.

Less than two years after a "reform"-minded Congress gave the president unprecedented powers to hand big (up to $20,000) bonuses to outstanding executives, the same Congress -- this time "economy"-minded -- is moving to reduce those awards to the level of a big bingo game door prize.

Administration aides are busy working the Senate side of Capitol Hill, hoping to undo some of the damage inflicted on SES bonus funds Tuesday by the House Appropriations Committee. It did two things of interest to the government's 30,000 plus executives -- career and political -- in the $50,000 plus salary range, most of whom live and work in metro Washington.

Action number one slapped a freeze on executive pay raises this year. That was unwelcome news to federal brass. But it was not entirely unexpected in this political year. Carter backed the concept of a top government pay freeze although his budget proposes a 6.2 percent October boost for rank-and-file white collar feds.

The big surprise and the really bad news for the SES and its 7,000 members is that the House committee slapped a $52,750 maximum on pay and bonuses for SES members.

Most of the SES people already get $50,122.50. So the new lid, if it sticks, leaves little room for the big bonuses promised earlier to executives who traded in much of their job security for a shot at higher salaries, and year-end bonuses for outstanding work.

Under the Civil Service Reform Act (passed 385 to 10 in the House, and 87 to 1 in the Senate) SES members were promised bonuses of 10 percent to 20 percent of salary. In addition a select few were to get special awards of $10,000 and $20,000.

In return for the promise of bonuses and higher salaries, SES members agreed to give up some of their civil service tenure, and to move to different posts at the pleasure of their political bosses.

What the House committee did was to set a total salary-bonus calling for SES members that would limit those who get bonuses to no more than $2,500 a year in extra awards. Nothing to sneeze at, but a far cry from $20,000 big-industry type bonuses.

Office of Personnel Management chief Alan K. Campbell, one of the chief architects of civil service reform said the salary-bonus lid could decimate the SES. Limiting top career bureaucrats to such small bonuses, after all they have given up for the chance to get them, "would render it impossible to make any realistic distinction in recognizing the performance of the executives."

Carter administration lobbyists went to work in the Senate, hoping to block it from following the House Committee action. They think they have a good chance of persuading the Senate to save a substantial portion of the bonuses, although they do expect it will go along with the politically popular pay freeze for this year.

A few federal agencies -- National Acronautics and Space Administration for example -- have already paid out 5-figure bonuses to key career executives. Because of an earlier limit on the amount of salary and bonuses a civil servant can get in one year, some NASA employees actually had to pay back some of the bonus money awarded them.

If the Carter administration can save part of the bonus concept -- via a Senate-House conference on the legislative branch supplemental appropriation bill --limited bonuses will be paid out this year to thousands of career federal executives. If the House committee language becomes law, there will be few bonuses this year and they will be much, much smaller than the president wanted to launch the SES.