Despite the on-going drive to cut the federal payroll by making more workers eligible for severance pay and unemployment benefits, the U.S. government has more than 70 vacancies at the $58,000-plus pay range it cannot fill.

It is not that there aren't lots of people willing to take the top jobs. Most of us have a cousin, uncle or friend who would like to come to Washington and draw a nice salary.

The problem is that the people who are qualified to run the Army's night vision and optics program, watch U.S. banks for the Treasury Department or manage multimillion-dollar cancer research programs are not beating down the doors to join an outfit that once boasted unmatched job security and retirement benefits and where, suddenly, its clerks are terrified, bosses are sick of being called drones and some officials wish they had flunked their first civil service exam.

At the moment Uncle Sam has 72 openings for jobs (list is available at the Office of Personnel Management) that include running VA offices in Buffalo, Honolulu, Little Rock, Louisville, Manila, Muskogee, New Orleans, Phoenix and Pittsburgh, or high-powered programs, legal offices or scientific operations of government.

Even with a $7,400 pay raise this year, the government is still having a tough time getting top specialists. The old-boy grapevine is putting out the word that the civil service isn't very civil anymore.

Presidents and politicians have been bad-mouthing the bureaucracy since before Lincoln. But it is getting worse. Many feds feel that Ronald Reagan is the meanest boss since Jimmy Carter, who was worse than Richard Nixon, who was worse than Lyndon Johnson . . .

Aides to Carter and Reagan said and are saying that their leaders have a true, deep affection for civil servants, and whatever unkind things were said were aimed at bureaucracy, red tape, waste and inefficiency.

But it is hard to toss rotten eggs at a house without sometimes smearing the inhabitants. Most of the "hare-brained" things bureaucrats do are on direct orders from Congress.

The press has joined the assault, reporting things that, while true (although sometimes old), do not paint a totally accurate picture of what government workers, who are very much like the rest of us, do for their daily bread.

A TV crew can zip into any federal agency and find somebody asleep, reading comics or enraptured by a boogie box. They could also walk through a TV station, bank, auto plant or newspaper office and find some people doing some of the same.

Morale in government may not be at an all-time low. But it is probably pretty close to it.

U.S. workers read that the White House wants to cut their benefits, or that they will be fired because Congress left on a month-long Christmas vacation without approving their budgets. They also read about taxpayer-financed parties for VIPs, and that the vacation-bound Congress managed to (very) quietly vote itself a $20,000 tax break.

Things are so bad in some government offices, where workers facing a 10 percent pay cut consider themselves "lucky" not to be fired, that productivity is, well, off.

RIF-triggered demotions have bumped middle-aged, $40,000-a-year executives into the typing pool where they in turn bump a younger breadwinner who did not type, as her replacement does, as though she were wearing boxing gloves.

The government is getting smaller. But not necessarily more efficient. One of the price tags of firing people when it would be easier and cheaper to let attrition do the job, is that all the effort aimed at creating vacancies at the bottom and middle ranks of government is also creating top-level vacancies that the country really can't afford for long.