Career federal executives at the $50,000 pay level will be eligible for bonuses of up to $19,500 this year under a last-minute Senate-House compromise.

The Senate last night approved the 1980 supplemental appropriations bill containing the new bonus salary level before leaving on a 2-week recess.

Despite the new combined salary-bonus maximum of $69,630 for Senior Executive Service members, federal officials estimate only one in four executives will get a bonus, and the typical payment will be about $5,000. f

Senate-House conferees meeting on the complex $16 billion omnibus supplemental appropriation bill agreed to the higher bonus level, rather than the more restrictive limit set by the House that would have limited SES bonuses to a maximum of $2,600.

The bonus issue was a tiny part of the giant supplemental appropriation bill. There were more than 250 differences between the measures approved by the Senate and the one cleared by the House.

Although the SES bonus issue was a minor one for the conferees to resolve, it is a major importance to the Carter administration and to 7,000 key federal executives, most of whom live in the Washington area.

Earlier, the House had slapped a pay-bonus lid on the SES that the Carter administration said would cut the SES pay incentive program, the backbone of President Carter's civil service reforms.

When they joined the SES, giving up much of their civil service job security, members were promised a shot at bonuses and special awards of up to $20,000, and 5 percent for awards of up to $10,000 if approved by the president.

In addition, up to half of the SES members (career executives only) would have been eligible for bonuses of 5, 10, 20 percent of their annual salary, based on outstanding ratings from their individual agencies or departments.

After the House voted the $52,750 limit on combined pay bonuses for SES members, most of whom already earn $50,000, the Carter administration went to work lobbying senators and key House members to restore most of the potential bonuses. Obviously they did their homework, convincing conferees that the bonus system, which has been used in only two agencies, is worth while and needs time -- and money -- to prove itself.

The conferees did limit the number of SES members who can get bonuses to 25 percent, rather than the 50 percent of the SES members promised in the Civil Service Reform Act.

The people running the federal bonus system already are cringing at the prospect of newspaper headlines that may make it appear that all government executives are now in line for $19,500 bonuses. It won't work that way, they say.

Based on restrictions applied by the conferees, and internal checks and balances, they estimate only 25 percent (if that many) will get bonuses, and that most of the bonuses will be more like $5,500.

The bonus system, as is any new idea applied to a bureaucracy that is both a public institution and a politically-managed system, is ripe for abuse. But it seems to be an idea that is worth a try.

The prospect of a $19,500 bonus for somebody making $50,000 is mind-boggling to the typical American-worker. But their responsibilities are awesome and by private industry standards, many are deserving of a lot more money than they could get, or we would be willing to pay, on the public payroll.

If the bonuses are abused, this column will be first in line to yell. It seems wise to give the bonus idea a try, and for Congress to live up to the contract it wrote for SES members when it "reformed" the government and lured tenured top executives into the new system.