A FEDERAL COURT has awarded a Bolivian woman $56,000 in back pay from her employers, who, it seems, brought her to the United States as a maid and then never paid her, holding her in virtual slavery. If ever there was a tiny tip to a big iceberg, this is it. All over the country, illegal immigrants from Latin America are being exploited by American families, who get away with underpaying them because the employes are afraid of being reported to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Among the worst hypocrites are liberal American career women liberating themselves by enslaving other women who presumably do not qualify for liberation because they are Hispanic. If you doubt this is a scandal, make the point at the next upper-class gathering you attend. Note the response of the female guests. You will not, I promise, be overwhelmed by waves of affection.

Why is Reagan to find it difficult to get really first-rate people to head the cabinet departments and other government agencies? The reason is that a few of these jobs have real power to affect events. Only a handful of government officials have genuine control over their programs, or can hire and fire anyone other than a secretary and a few assistants. You can't change the world that way. All you get is a title that will look good in your obituary -- and the kind of people satisfied by that are not the kind of people we need.

Secretary of the Navy, for example, is one of the empty jobs. But it sounds impressive, and it was the launching pad for Virginia's junior senator, Mr. Elizabeth Taylor. He will not be thrlled, however, when he reads Bill Gulley's recent book "Breaking Cover." In it, Gulley recounts how President Ford sought Richard Nixon's advice on whether Ford could unload an unwanted White House aide by appointing him secretary of the Navy. Ford was concerned about endangering the nation's naval posture. Nixon told Ford not to worry. "It's a job anyone can do," the former president is quoted as saying. "Why, we even had John Warner in that job."

Paul Burka, writing in The Texas Monthly, reveals that the greatest danger Texas faced durig Hurricane Allen, July's "Storm of the Century," came not from the 200 m.p.h. winds, but from the National Weather Service. Through the entire episode, the Weather Service refused to issue specific information regarding the location and ferocity of the storm.

Why? The Weather Service has been reorganized into a computer-linked chain of command. "The new structure has all but eliminated the old-line local forecaster who drew his own maps, called his own shots, and above all, knew his home territory," Burke explains. Advisories must be passed from local stations to regional centers to the National Hurricane Center in Miami. The officials who finally release information have no personal knowledge of the affected areas. The Weather Service said, for instance, that 10-to-15-foot tides might hit parts of Galveston Bay. It didn't say which parts. Galveston Bay is 280 miles long.

The new structure also requires so many intermediaries to review and approve bulletins that delays and excessive caution are inevitable. The Miami center did not announce its "prediction" for Allen's landfall until after the storm had moved inland.

If you doubt that the American legal system serves the rich, consider the case of the paper bag versus the leather pouch. The U.S. Court of Appeals has held that paper bags may be searched without a warrant, but that your belongings are immune from warrantless search if you keep them in a zippered leather pouch. So be sure to get a Gucci for your gun.

If I were a Jew, I would be troubled by what happened at the B'nai B'rith convention this fall. All three presidential candidates groveled. This is the kind of thing that makes the Arabs desperate -- and violent.

But if the B'nai B'rith meeting was a low point for American Jewry, another autumn event, the "Legislative Weekend" of the Congressional Black Caucus, held at the Washington Hilton, was an even lower point for black Americans. Five thousand of the country's black leaders spent hundreds of dollars each to imitate the most conventional gatherings of the white middle class. Most of the "Legislative Weekend" was taken up with singing groups and fashion shows. When they finally got down to business, it was smugly self-congratulatory stuff devoid of passionate concern about either the issues or the candidates. The highlight came when the "Chair's Award," top honor of the caucus was bestowed on former Rep. Charles Diggs. Diggs was cited for, amother other things his "contributions to the cause of justice." ?unfortunately he was unable to accept in person because he is being detained in a federal penitentiary, serving time on his kickback convictions.

There has been a disturbing similarity in the performance of the White House press corps and the White House staff during the past four years. The press thinks it is getting at the truth when it takes whatever information the administration hands out, and then asks tough, hostile questions at White House press conferences. The bright young lawyers on the White House staff have tried to run the government in a similar fashion -- by poring over the data and decision memoranda handed up from the various departments, and then subjecting a few senior officials of those departments to skeptical questioning.

Behind both these approaches is the Perry Mason Fallacy -- the idea that a smart lawyer who "asks the right questions" can extract the truth from the person he is cross-examining, even when that person doesn't want to tell it or doesn't know it. In fact, cross-examination alone is seldom sufficient, because it still leaves the questioner helplessly dependent on the questionee for his information. A truly effective questioner makes sure he has independent, first-hand knowledge against which to test the answers he gets.

For the press, really uncovering the truth would require reporters who spent less time being nasty to the president and his press secretary, and more time asking questions out in the country to find out if the White House knows what it is talking about. And for the White House, really running the government would require staff members to develop lines of communication to the levels of bureaucracy below the top echelons, so they could find out for themselves which assistant secretaries were telling the truth, which programs were working, which tanks and missiles weren't. Unfortunately, this sort of digging is hard work. It is much more glamorous to ask those tough questions in an elegant White House room.

When James Fallows was on the White House staff, he offered to get out of the cozy cocoon and serve as just the kind of roving eyes and ears that the administration needed. Carter and his chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, ignored the offer. Fallows left to write a memorable article on defense in The Atlantic containing the exact kind of information that the Pentagon never tells the White House. In fact, thanks to the efforts of The Atlantic and a number of other publications, defense is becoming one area where the press is making the investigations that White House reporters and staff members prefer to avoid.