"Hell hath no fury like a government worker denied free parking!" -- Unknown Greek Bureaucrat, 376 B.C.

Want to know the really big issue in government these days? Well, forget all that heavy stuff like the Israel-Iraq thing, arms for Peking, the threat to world peace, Reaganomics, Tip O'Neill's identification with the poor, postal and air traffic strikes, a return to the military draft, or who's on first in El Salvador.

The thing preoccupying many feds these days -- from struggling clerks to VIPs -- is a search for parking lot receipts that will document what they've paid for parking over the last couple of years. If they can prove it, they are in line for a chunk of the $23 million parking rebate Uncle Sam may make this fall.

The massive paperwork exercise was launched when a federal judge here ruled that Jimmy Carter and company acted improperly in late 1979 when they committed the heinous, not to mention barbaric, crime of forcing civil servants to pay half of the commercial equivalent for office parking spaces.

Carter's pay parking order, ruled illegal because he didn't say mother-may-I? to Congress (where free parking is unquestioned), hit an estimated 350,000 federal workers. It caused 75,000 people here to start paying for parking that was once free. Local federal workers stand to get back nearly $5 million unless the government wins an appeal scheduled to be decided later this fall.

Meantime, so that everybody will know just how much they are due, federal agencies are advising employes -- via bulletin boards, newsletters and word of mouth -- to make their claims for parking rebates, and to include documentation to prove how long they paid to park, and how much. If put end to end, the paperwork involved could stretch from Hyattsville to Uranus!

Lawyers for the American Federation of Government Employees (joined later by the National Treasury Employees Union) believe they will win the appeals, and that will lead to rebates ranging from $250 to $600 for workers who paid to park between October 1979 and April 1981 when the program was stopped. The court and the government simply want to be ready when and if the BIG payback comes.

Taxpayers who are not directly involved should pray that our new president learns something about the limitations of power from this long-running, costly effort. An American president can sometimes bully, or jolly, Congress into doing something. He can persuade allies and enemies to shake hands, sometimes start a little war, and even request PX privileges when he retires. But there are some things nobody should try, no matter how big his mandate is. Messing with free parking is one of the untouchables. h