Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) wants the government to consider expanding a program -- now limited to a Navy test in California -- that allows agencies to pay employes more money based on performance.

Schroeder, who represents many federal workers, said she isn't endorsing the plan but thinks it should be studied. This puts her at odds with Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), an opponent of the plan, who also represents a big chunk of the government work force.

In June, the Defense Department recommended to Congress that the China Lake experiment (so named because it has been tested with 5,000 employes for four years at the Naval Ocean Systems Center in San Diego and the Naval Weapons Center in China Lake, Calif.) be expanded to other agencies. Under the test program, employes are divided into groups (engineers/scientists; technicians, administration and clerical employes) with each group being covered by pay bands that are much broader than the current 15-level civil service grade system.

The Defense Department proposal would give most federal agencies the authority to establish their own classification, pay and performance systems.

On Feb. 12 this column reported that scientists and engineers under the China Lake program were earning from 8 to 12 percent more than their counterparts assigned to Navy installations in this area.

The Defense suggestion was all but forgotten until two weeks ago when Barnes, who is running for the Democratic nomination for the Senate, issued a press release warning that the Defense plan is being given serious consideration by the Reagan administration. Some administration officials said it was news to them, but by then the plan had become a hot topic in civil service circles. Barnes fears that the plan could lead to wide-ranging pay differentials among federal agencies and give political managers excessive purse-string controls over civil servants.

Schroeder, in an Oct. 24 letter to Office of Personnel Management chief Constance Horner, said she has "closely monitored" the Navy demonstration project and found it to be a "a major success" that has boosted employe morale and pay. OPM officials have expressed concerns about the cost of the program because of the higher salaries it permits.

"Whether the project would work successfully elsewhere," Schroeder said, "is unknown." But she thinks it ought to be seriously considered.