During an appearance on Capitol Hill, Bradford Reynolds, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, faced an irate Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.). He was, in Schroeder's words, "whining about busing and quotas and reverse discrimination and racial spoils systems" until she finally could take no more.

As she recalled it in an interview last week, she told him: "You don't have any credibility attacking any of it. If you were one-tenth as passionate about the wrongs as about the remedies, we'd believe you. I've never heard you say how terrible discrimination is or how awful it is that women don't get equal pay for equal work. You always say the remedy is too ominous."

The attitude she attributes to Reynolds is similar to the attitude taken by Donald J. Devine, director of the Office of Personnel Management, in trying to bar federal workers from the opportunity to make payroll contributions to groups advocating such things as environmental issues, civil rights and women's rights.

Advocates who had sought to expand the list of charities allowed to receive payroll-deduction contributions from federal employes gradually had opened the federal charitable campaign up to a broader variety of nonprofits -- many of them relatively new ones that emerged from the civil rights, women's, consumer and environmental movements.

But Devine's response was to try to narrow the participant organizations to "health and welfare charities" and to exclude the new organizations, many of them legal defense funds, under the guise of giving more money to the truly needy.

Groups that advocate social change and take part in "political activity or advocacy, lobbying or litigation on behalf of parties other than themselves" are a big part of the administration's objection to the combined federal campaign as it is now run.

Last week, a federal judge struck down the administration's order limiting participation in the Combined Federal Campaign as unconstitutional, but officials were undaunted. "We strongly favor appeal and have every reason to believe that the Justice Department will concur," Patrick S. Korten of the OPM said Friday.

"They want to imprint their definition of charity," said Schroeder, who was a key congressional force in gradually opening up the CFC to a broader variety of nonprofits. "They much prefer the stopgap -- send an individual a turkey and a basket on Thanksgiving as opposed to filing a group suit. But advocacy groups in the long run are a much more efficient use of the money, especially now when the administration has shut off the legal services." (An estimated 36 legal defense funds collected about $3 million from federal employes in their work places last year.)

In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Joyce Hens Green said the government "has presented no evidence that it is 'appropriate' to exclude organizations that provide only 'indirect services' or that operate along general class lines rather than by meeting the needs of individuals."

Why does this administration always try to narrow the promise of America rather than to broaden it? Why is it that just when the organizations that emerged from the civil rights, women's, consumer and environmental movements start to take advantage of the system -- with a newfound vision of an America from which they had been excluded -- the administration wants to step in and change the rules?

Korten says exclusion of advocacy groups was a consideration but not a primary concern, and that a handful of conservative groups would be lopped off by new rules as well. Administrative management was a bigger issue, he said. "Federal employes already have a choice among hundreds of charities and it's difficult enough" without adding more.

"I think that's terribly paternalistic," said Schroeder. "I don't think it is their right to say only certain things can be on the list."

Nobody wants rip-off groups passing the hat among federal employes, and reasonable criteria should indeed be instituted. But a country can't grow by narrowing the confines of participation. A country can't prosper worrying more about the limits of the remedies than about the wrongs that were being addressed in the first place.