Thousands of federal executives got a swift kick in the asterisk this week. It happened when they looked at the new 1980 federal pay chart. It shows them "losing" a lot of money they never had anyhow. It is a typical bureaucratic horror story.

Executives now paid $50,112.50 were already aware they would not get any of the 9.1 percent raise President Carter plans to give other feds this October. Pay freezes in election years are nothing new to high-level civil servants.

What threw the supergraders was the new pay scales -- which denotes with "asterisks" rates due, but not paid officials -- showed a new "maximum" rate of $58,500. Last year, 1979, that "asterisk" rate was $65,750. That was supposed to represent the amount top feds would get in a perfect world in which Congress and the White House never froze federal pay.

Federal executive pay is complicated because it exists on at least three levels. They are: the amount actually paid; the amount the government says should be paid under current law but not acutally paid, and the amount due if executive pay had never been frozen, delayed or reduced.

To further complicate matters, bear in mind that U.S. executives in 1979 got a 5.5 percent raise that was actually due them in 1978. Meanwhile, other government workers got 7 percent.The 5.5 percent should have moved top feds up to $53,600. But Congress said $50,112.50 was all they could get. tSo there was a new actual rate, a new paper rate and a new asterisk rate.

This year, when Carter okayed a 9.1 percent raise for rank-and-file personnel, pay experts applied that amont to the "paper" rate of $53,600, although the people were getting a smaller actual rate. That moved the "paper" rate to $58,500 for the people acutally getting $50,112.50. Meanwhile the charted "asterisks" rate, which normally goes up, was dropped from the 1979 level of $65,750 to $58,500 for 1980.

The "asterisk" rate was moved downard by officials because they feel it is politically unrealistic to expect that top federal executives will ever get the full rates due them if pay was never frozen. The administration decided to move the "asterisk" figure down to a more "realistic" $58,500, even though nobody is getting that either.

So the chart that confused people is, by Washington standards, quite correct. What it means if you are a U.S. government executive is that the old asterisk rate ($65,750) you never got anyhow has been moved down to a more "realistic" level of $58,500 that you probably won't ever get either.