The bonus system for 7,000 career government executives has been rescued from premature burial by Congress -- but at a price.

Instead of the program that promised half of Uncle Sam's top-paid career people a shot at big industry-style financial rewards, the Office of Personnel Management has issued guidelines that limit bonuses to no more than one of every five members of the Senior Executive Service. Most live and work in the Washington area.

Idea is to convince suspicious members of Congress that the bonus system, created by the president's civil service reform act, won't turn into a fiancial buddy-system, with top bosses handing out big cash benefits to one another.

When Congress created the SES -- the high-risk, high-reward elite corps of supergrade bureaucrats -- it agreed to a first-time system that would allow agencies, and the president, to reward up to half the SES workforce with some kind of annual extra payment, up to $20,000 or 20 percent of salary in some cases.

Congress has had second thoughts about the bonus system, and became enraged when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- one of two agencies that first paid bonuses -- came up with a long list of winners. o

The effect, during a political austerity year, was to persuade Congress to slap a pay freeze on top U.S. officials, and gut the bonus system to little more than a couple of weeks' salary, rather than the big payoffs promised.

House members of a Senate-House conference on a supplemental money bill (including funds to finance the SES bonuses) were so ticked off at the size and number of NASA bonuses that they wanted to kill the program altogether.Sens. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.), Warren G. Magnuson (D-Wash.) and Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) persuaded their House colleagues to keep the bonuses and limit them to no more than 25 percent of the SES work force. The conferees set a maximum 1980 limit pay-bonuses for SES members at $69,630. Most SES members get $50,112.50 in salary.

With the bonuses for 1980 saved, Carter aides began lobbying to retain the program for the 1981 fiscal year. It begins Oct. 1.

Next step was to make sure that the bonuses were not chopped, or eliminated, for the upcoming fiscal year. The Senate is agreeable to the program, so the lobbying was centered on the House this week.

Rep. Adam Benjamin (D-Ind.) had been the primary critic of the bonus system. OPM director Alan Campbell visited Benjamin to assure him that OPM would monitor the program. Benjamin agreed to give the bonus system another chance. With that, opposition to the bonuses evaporated. The House late Monday evening okayed the bonuses for the fiscal 1981 year. The same pay-bonus limit of $69,630 applies.

That will be important since Congres plans to freeze the salaries of all top government executives, meaning they will not get any regular pay raise this October at a time that other white collar workers will get increases.

Campbell's directive to agencies -- telling them to limit bonuses to 20 percent of their career SES personnel -- is intended to make sure that nobody even comes close to the 25 percent limit Congress has imposed.

To back it up, Campbell will be sending copies of a letter he received from Sen. Eagleton, who is in line to take over the Governmental Affairs Committee next year. Eagleton's letter, demanding maximum application of horse sense to the bonus system, warned that the entire SES reward system almost "went down the tubes" because of the way "NASA prostituted the SES concept." He finished with this warning.

"If several agencies come in at 25 percent, or 24.9 percent or anything like that indicating a disregard for the SES concept as previously demonstrated by NASA, then I predict that you can kiss SES goodby.

"For God's sake," Eagleton warned, "see to it that good judgment is used in this matter."