Normally, when the General Accounting Office tells a federal agency to jump the agency response is "How high?"

But these are not normal times on the civil service beat. Which is why the feisty (some folks would use a different adjective) political team at the Office of Personnel Management has, in effect, told the congressional watchdog agency to bug off.

Two weeks ago the GAO said that the Reagan administration plan (actually OPM's plan) to base within-grade pay raises on performance was illegal. GAO had researched the proposal for the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, which opposes the change.

The proposed rules change would affect pay raises and promotions for most of the 300,000 white-collar civil servants in the Washington-Baltimore region.

Under the OPM proposal, employes in the top three steps of each grade would have to get a rating of "exceeds fully successful" to get the 3 percent within-grade raises. Workers in the first seven steps of the grade would need only a "fully successful" rating to get the raises.

GAO said this constitutes a double standard that violates a 1945 law that says the same standard must apply to all employes, regardless of their place on the within-grade ladder.

However, OPM is circulating a letter to federal agencies with the opinion of its general counsel, who says that GAO is misreading the law. OPM says it will proceed with the plan.

The OPM has said that it will put its performance-based incentive system (which also covers layoffs) in effect Aug. 1 unless Congress comes up with its own plan.

The Democratic-controlled House is working to block any rules change. The Senate is working on a compromise. Both the Senate and House have said they do not recognize or accept OPM's Aug. 1 deadline.

Many House members were counting on the GAO decision to put the skids on the plan.

But the OPM says it is right, and the GAO is wrong, and it is proceeding full speed ahead.