President Reagan's decision not to support a pay increase for top federal executives, members of Congress and the judiciary will hurt his drive to recruit the best people in and out of government for key management jobs.

The ceiling on career federal pay is $50,112.50. Most top bureaucrats haven't had a raise since 1979, when they got a 5.5 percent increase. Rank-and-file federal workers received raises of 7.1 percent (October 1980) and 9.1 percent (October 1981), moving more rank-and-filers up to executive pay levels.

Jerry Shaw, president of the newly formed Senior Executive Association, says that his organization (it now has 400 members) is signing up 25 new members each day. A couple of them, he said, have asked that the $25 initiation fee (annual dues are $104) be deferred "because they just don't have the money."

"It seems ridiculous, I know," Shawsaid, "to hear a guy making $50,000 a year say he doesn't have an extra $100. But we have senior government executives who are losing their credit cards, who are having trouble making house payments, because of the [pay] freeze."

Shaw, on a 90-day leave of absence from the Internal Revenue Service, says many people took promotions -- and moved to Washington -- based on the promise of higher pay. When Congress set up the 8,000-member Senior Executive Service, it authorized a system of bonuses and higher pay for career people willing to leave the relative security of Grade 15 jobs for the risks and rewards in the government's supergrade hierarchy.

Congress has since told agencies to cut back on the bonuses. This is partly the fault of some departments andagencies that handed out big rewards to people who turned around and left government, or to members of the awards committees themselves. Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) warned agencies to be very careful with bonuses lest Congress stop them entirely.

Congress and the White house (Carter and now Reagan) have kept the lid on top federal pay mainly because legislators are afraid to vote themselves raises, and won't let bureaucrats get what they can't have. Carter, in his lame-duck budget, recommended that the pay lid be raised this year to give the frozen officials raises of nearly 17 percent, representing a catch-up for boost denied the last two years. Reagan approved the plan but backed off last week after testing pay raise enthusiasm on Capitol Hill.

Shaw says that the administration has it backwards. He believes the political support would develop on Capitol Hill if Reagan asked for the raises, but that the president must take the lead. (Carter appointees got substantial raises shortly after taking office, thanks to lame-duck budget recommendations made by former president Gerald Ford).

The SEA chief says about 400 executives quit government last year. He thinks most of them did so because of pay freezes, and many of them went on to better paying jobs in industry. He says there is a 20 to 30 percent vacancy rate in the Senior Executive Service in most agencies.

Shaw said he recently talked with a group of Grade 15 people who are in executive development programs. Because of the pay ceiling, the fifth longevity step of GS 15 now reaches the $50,112.50 cutoff. "A lot of them told me they would refuse SES jobs when they get out of training," Shaw said. "They said why take the extra responsibility and the hassle of the SES" when there is no pay incentive.

Anybody who writes a column about the "plight" of people making "only" $50,112.00 a year is inviting nasty letters. Obviously $50,000 is a lot of money, three to four times more than the average American makes. Obviously there are some government executives who aren't worth half that. That really isn't the point.

The people who manage multimillion-dollar federal programs ought to be the best and the brightest. If theyaren't, get rid of them. But they should be the best, and the best people deserve to be allowed to maintain their current standard of living. We don't have to pay them what the head of the Chrysler Corp. gets (some would argue he gets too much), but they shouldn't be taking induced pay cuts every year, and government service -- elected or appointed -- shouldn't be limited only to the Kennedys, Rockefellers or Reagans.