When they hear about 22-day furloughs facing hundreds of thousands of federal workers, Barbara J. Cranford and Jeannette Gordon (who also work for Uncle Sam) wish they could be so lucky.

Cranford and Gordon could be furloughed for 255 of the next 260 workdays unless the White House-congressional budget summit approves a budget by Oct. 1. If not, the two career employees must decide how to make a week's pay stretch over 11 months and three weeks. "It won't work," concludes Cranford, who has 35 years in government and who planned to retire in less than two years.

If the budget isn't settled, automatic spending cuts kick in. That's a one-third cut for most agencies. After various belt-tightening exercises -- travel, overtime, promotions, and so forth -- some figure the worst-case scenario would mean up to 22 furlough days during the next fiscal year.

Small and labor-intensive agencies that spend most of their money on salaries and benefits have a grimmer furlough picture.

The ultimate in furlough grim these days is at two of the smallest agencies: the two-person Delaware River Basin Commission and the two-person Susquehanna River Basin Commission. Each handles problems such as fishing, water resources, pollution, hydro-power and the overall health and status of the two industrial heartland river basins and their wetlands.

Cranford, a Grade 13 staff assistant, and presidential appointee commissioner Irene B. Brooks constitute the Delaware commission. Gordon and her commissioner boss, Warner M. Depuy, constitute the Susquehanna commission. They share offices and problems. Presidential appointees can't be furloughed.

Cranford and Gordon say their bosses "feel terrible" about the potential furloughs, "but what can they do?" They must cut $70,000 and $67,000 respectively. So far, they've canceled subscriptions to the Congressional Record ($340 a year) and Federal Register ($225) and cut their telephone service. What's left must come from staff salaries. Result: What the government handbook calls a "long furlough."

Like others facing furloughs, Cranford and Gordon can't draw pay for annual leave they've saved. And they worry about making their biweekly federal health premiums, not to mention rent, food and other necessities.

The budget summit group resumes meeting today at Andrews Air Force Base. For eight months, the budget has been blocked because politicians see the big picture differently. It's time they stopped focusing on pet economic theories and jockeying for political advantage and looked at real people -- such as Crawford and Gordon.