A line was dropped from yesterday's column that caused some confusion over the item about possible back payments for many members of the Senior Executive Service. The payments, of up to $5,500, represent raises that Congress denied SES members in 1980 and 1981. That action was overturned last year by a federal appeals court. The government opposes making the payments, and has been given until March 1 to decide whether it will carry its fight to the Supreme Court, or give in and write checks for the executives. Since 80 percent of the Senior Executive Service works here, the question is of more than passing interest to a lot of local people. If the payments are made, they will go to all who were in the elite executive corps in 1980 or 1981. That includes most of the 6,000 SES members still on the job, plus hundreds of others (or their survivors) who were government executives in 1980 and 1981 who have since left government, retired or died.

Back payments of up to $5,500 each for nearly 6,000 career government executives are on hold until March 1, when the government must decide whether to make the payments, which could total about $32 million, or ask the Supreme Court to reject the executives' claims.

Most members of the Senior Executive Service, an elite corps of top-level career officials, live in the Washington area. Their annual salaries range from $61,296 to $72,200.

At issue is whether the executives were improperly denied pay raises by Congress even as their subordinates in the civil service were getting the cost-of-living adjustments.

In four actions between 1979 and 1982, Congress capped or froze executive salaries, in some cases for budgetary reasons and in others because members -- who try to keep their own salaries higher than SES executives' -- were afraid to take raises. Two years ago a group of executives went to court seeking back pay for the four-year period.

A lower court upheld the freeze. But its decision was partly overturned when the Senior Executive Association appealed the case to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. That court ruled that Congress acted properly in pay-freeze actions it took in 1979 and 1982, but erred when it imposed caps in 1980 and 1981.

Last July the appeals court ordered the lower court to direct the government to make the back salary payments to executives who were on the payroll and in the SES in 1980. There were 81 such employes, some of whom have since quit government, retired or died.

The Justice Department, acting as the lawyer for the Office of Personnel Management, has contended that the Chicago appeals court is not the proper court to decide legislative/federal pay matters. Justice has been trying to decide what step, if any, to take next.

The court told the government last week that it must make up its mind by March 1. That gives the government the option of making the payments or asking the Supreme Court if it will rule on the issue. The court does not have to take the case, but an appeal to it could stall the payments for months.

What all this means is that it will be about two weeks before executives know if they are going to get the money without a fight, or if the matter will be further delayed. Odds are the government will choose to fight.