The decision to let federal workers put in a half-day on Christmas Eve is living proof that compromise is not always the way to make everybody, or even anybody, happy.

The public -- especially people who have lost jobs or may lose them -- won't get much joy out of television footage showing local federal workers leaving work at noon, especially if they grumble on camera at having to work half a day for a full day's pay.

Federal workers probably won't do much celebrating because of the decision. Many will fail to see the wisdom and economy of opening up on Monday and running lights and heat for four hours before sending everybody home at noon, not to return until Wednesday.

Essential federal services will be (and would have been) performed Monday, no matter what. One suspects that not all non-essential, non-emergency services will get priority handling by the few unhappy souls who show up for half a day.

If the president had said that Monday was business as usual -- because of economic conditions and the situation in the Persian Gulf -- most people beyond the Beltway would probably have applauded, even if their bosses let them go home early. An eight-hour Monday could have sent a message that Washington is biting the bullet and understands what is going on. Federal workers wouldn't have liked it, but most would have understood and perhaps have taken the day off -- on their own time -- anyhow.

Or the president could have said he was giving federal workers Monday off for a job well done, and told merchants he was creating an extra shopping day for 2 million people, whose average salary is $29,000, as a shot in the arm for the local economy. Some of the private-sector types who would normally complain at such bureaucrat-coddling would be too busy taking their money to complain.

But a half-day?

Maybe the next time Christmas falls on a Tuesday, or a Thursday, President Bush will take a lesson from President Reagan. In 1984 -- when Christmas fell on a Tuesday -- Reagan announced Monday was work as usual because of the economic situation. There was some grumbling in the ranks. But people survived. Most forgot whether they got the day off. In 1986, when Christmas fell on a Thursday, Reagan said things were better. He gave federal employees Friday, Dec. 26, off.

But a half-day?

Congress and the Supreme Court are going all the way. Most of the 20,000 congressional workers, and all of the court's 350 staff members, will get the whole day off Monday.

Because the day before Christmas is their peak time, postal workers will be on the job Monday as usual.

Some lawmaker will probably wind up asking the General Accounting Office to see how much the half-day Monday holiday cost the government. The GAO can do it, but it will have to work fast. Even though it works for Congress, the watchdog agency will also be on the half-day Monday schedule so it can monitor the half-day effort of the executive branch.