Members of the elite executive corps that President Carter set up to help him run the bureaucracy plan to go to court today to sue Uncle Same for breach of promise. The Senior Executive Association, a private group representing some members of the federal SES (Senior Executive Service), allege that Congress and the administration backed down on promises of substantial financial rewards for SES members who traded in some of the security of their former supergrade (GS 16, 17 and 18) jobs for the high-reward, high-risk elite corps created by the Civil Service Reform Act.

SEA president Ted Kerns, of the Internal Revenue Service, says that about 175 of the association's 400 members met in Alexandria Monday evening and voted overwhelmingly to press the lawsuit designed to make Congress keep the promise it made when it created the senior service. Federal supergraders were offered the option of coming into the SES with more rewards and benefits offered as incentives. oThey say the CS Reform Act promised that 50 percent of the entire SES workforce, which has about 8,000 members, would be eligible for performance bonuses ranging up to 20 percent of salary.

After several agencies made the awards -- National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Small Business Administration among them -- members of Congress charged that too many officials were getting overly large bonuses. Congress slapped a 25 percent maximum on the number of SES members who could get the performance raises. Office of Personnel Management issued a directive suggesting agencies limit giving awards to no more than 20 percent of their executives. In cases in which agency heads want to give more awards, OPM said they must be cleared by chairman Alan K. Campbell.

The SEA lawsuit will contend that Congress is guilty of breach of promise and that the 20 percent OPM limitation is unconstitutional.

Ironically, the official to be named in the lawsuit will be Campbell himself.He did most of the congressional spade-work that saved the bonus system from extinction. Campbell buttonholed key members of Congress, including Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.), who agreed to support the system, but with a warning not to let agencies overdo it lest the entire program be scuttled.

Reacting to news of the SEA lawsuit yesterday, Campbell said he is "disappointed," and hopes the action doesn't backfire in Congress and with the public -- reactions that could cause further cutbacks in the executive awards program. Campbell said that given the mood of Congress, he had hoped agencies would establish good records over the next year and thus persuade Congress that the incentive program is a good one and should be expanded.

Campbell said he is sorry the Senior Executive Association "is beginning its life with a total emphasis on benefits, rather than in an effort to improve management and professionalism" in the senior service.

The SEA legal test is expected to take from three to six months to decide, and cost the plaintiff group from $20,000 to $40,000, according to an association official. Currently, the group has about 400 members (most of them making $50,000 or more) who pay a $25 initiation fee, and $104 a year in dues.