IN THE LAST HOURS of the lame-duck 96th Congress, before it left Washington to infect the countryside, it acted to deny federal training or employment to anyone who publicly advocates the overthrow of the government. The vote in the Senate was unanimous and secret, making you wonder if there is a whole lot of difference between a lame duck and a yellow chicken.

Several lawmakers did speak out on the subject. One of them was Rep. W. C. (Dan) Daniel (D-Va.), who represents the southern part of the state, where, in the town of Martinsville, reside those notorious communists, the Blitzes -- Allen and Dorothy. They are being trained as masons and carpenters under the federally funded CETA program and they really do, it ppears, advocte the violent overthrow of the very government that is training them. Grateful they are not.

Other lawmakers who declared themselves on this issue were Sens. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and Harry Byrd (I-Va,), both of whom introduced the amendment on Daniel's behalf in the Senate, and Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.), who thought the proposed legislation so praiseworthy that it moved him to exclaim to the world and to page S16192 of the Congressional Record, "I don't know how anybody could object to this amendment." Here's how.

Someone could object because the amendment makes political belief -- not action or deed -- a condition of training or employment. The Blitzes, after all, have been convicted of breaking no law, and even if they had, their crime as far as the Senate wa concerned had nothing to do with what they did. It is what they said that matters. Obnoxious as that might be to some people, maybe to most people, it is a long way from a criminal act. In fact, saying what you think used to be called "the American Way."

Someone might also object because if anyone is disqualified from federal programs on the basis of one set of beliefs, he or she could be disqualified for other beliefs. The good people of Martinsville might find atheists also not to their liking and maybe Mormons, too. How about Catholics and Seventh-Day Adventists or maybe, just for the hell of it, people who voted for John Anderson? After all, isn't it time Republicans and the Democrats got together to punish those who support third party candidates?

Some people might object because the government is attempting to censor political thought. It is not telling people like the Blitzes to shut their mouths, that is true. But it is saying that if they open their mouths, they will work no more. In harder times and for different people, it might come down to the choice of saying what you believe or starving.

Compared to what went on in the 1950s, the Daniel amendment is small potatoes, indeed. In the Senate, few were present to vote on the matter and in the end it fell victim to the adjournment rush. It and oodles of other amendments were stripped from spending bills at the last moment and discarded.

But that does not change the fact that an effort was made to silence and intimidate -- intimidate both the Blitzes and the federal agencies. People with unpopular political views were put on notice that they had better keep their mouths shut or not apply to their government for either a job or for training. It would not matter if they were qualified in every other way, even if, like the Blitzes, they had paid taxes for years and had helped support the very programs for which, congressman Daniel willing, they would soon not be eligible.

Congress is gone now and so it's difficult to determine how serious the effort was to placate Daniel. He, for one, considers his effort a success: "The sense of Congress has been firmly established and the amendment will be enacted when a germane bill is passed by the new Congress." Maybe. Or maybe those who voted for the amendment were counting on the courts to strike it down, as they surely would have done.

Either way, it is a return in spirit to the 1950s when people were asked what they thought and when they thought it and whether they would be willing, just to prove their patriotism, to think it no more and to inform on those who did. If the Senate has learned anything since then it certainly didn't cause it to rise up indignantly and be counted. Instead, it appears to have learned not to be counted at all.