AMERICANS HAVE long been making a serious mistake by complaining about bureaucrats who do nothing at taxpayers' expense.

In this section, for example, Barbara Palmer recently reported that she phoned the Labor Department in the middle of the working day to talk to 10 department officials about a recently negotiated contract between the department and its union. The secretaries for nine of the 10 professed not to know where their bosses were, what they were doing, or when they would be back. Only one was at his desk doing the work the taxpayers were paying him to do.

The story prompted predictable outrage from the hinterlands, where people still believe you should do a day's work for a day's pay. But their anger was misplaced. We should be grateful for the nine who were goofing off and direct our ire at the one who was on the job. He's symptomatic of the biggest problem we have in government today.

You see, the trouble with government is not that there are so many federal employes who don't work. The trouble is there are so many who do.

Government employes don't have much of anything. People in the private sector produce the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the homes we live in, the cars we drive and the countless other things that make life possible and worth living. People in government produce taxes and regulations.

At best, the conscientious government employe for a more "equitable" distribution of wealth other people create. But more often, the hardworking bureaucrat is busy throwing up barriers to the creation of new jobs, new products and new markets. Surely the republic is better served by the bureaucrats who take long coffee breaks and longer lunch hours than it is by those who work late into the night grinding out regulations specifying the shape of toilet seats, or stipulating when high school cheerleaders should cheer for boys' teams and when they should cheer for girls' teams.

President Reagan is trying to reform the federal bureaucracy. But he's doing it the hard way, and his chances for success are slim. Already, the "iron triangle" of the special interests who benefit from federal programs, the bureaucrats who administer them and the congressman who receive votes and campaign contributions from the special interests are mobilizing to stop him.

Fortunately, there is an easier way. A panacea, if you will. I give you Kelly's Modest proposal for the Salvation of the Republic.

At present, federal employes, like those in the private sector, work 48, 49 or 50 weeks a year and get two, three or four weeks' vacation. The Modest Proposal is simply to reverse this: Instead of working 50 weeks a year and getting two weeks' vacation, federal employes would work two weeks a year and get 50 weeks' vacation.

I can imagine the hue and cry this proposal may elicit from shortsighted thinkers. But their complaints will be without foundation.

Some will say the Modest Proposal will cripple the operations of the federal government. I say: Hallelujah! Actually, if Barbara Palmer's experience at the Labor Department is any guide, all the necessary work of government can be done if we get just two weeks of real work from every federal employe.

Others will say the Modest Proposal would be outrageously expensive. The average federal wage exceeds $21,000 a year. That's an awful lot of money to pay people for two weeks' work.

But we must not forget we'd have to pay that salary bill anyway for government "services" most of us would as soon do without. The Modest Proposal would not add a dime to the $52.4 billion a year we're now paying for federal salaries, and would in a very short period bring about substantial savings.

Government employes can be divided into two categories: those who could not obtain jobs in the private sector, and those who would do very well there. We'd wind up supporting those in the first category in any event, and calling them "federal employes" rather than "welfare recipients" salves their pride. Those in the second category could obtain private employment during their long vacations from their federal jobs and devote their talents to helping the economy rather than harming it.

So from the initial cost of the Modest Proposal, we must subtract what we would otherwise pay in public assistance to federal employes who can do nothing else, and subtract also the increase in tax revenues from the productive activities of the Stakhanovites in the federal bureaucracy.

But by far the biggest savings would accrue down the line. Not even the most brazen union organizer could demand more than $21,000 for two weeks' work, so federal pay increases could be curtailed into the indefinite future.

Furthermore, adoption of the Modest Proposal hiring freeze work. If we require only two weeks' work a year from each of the 2.5 million full-time federal employes, it would be ludicrous to argue that federal workers who retire need be replaced. Spending for government employes would decline in real terms as well as a percentage of GNP.

There would be other savings. While it is doubtful we could ever go back to the halcyon days when the State, War and Navy departments all were housed in what is now only one of two office buildings for a bloated White House staff, far less office space would be required for federal employes who would be rotating every two weeks throughout the year. There would be an immediate saving in energy consumption, purchase of office furniture and maintenance of public buildings. Unused space could be leased, or sold outright, to private industry.

And there would be nonmonetary benefits. The air pollution index would decline dramatically since there would be far fewer federal employes commuting to work each day. Nor would there be any more of those aggravating traffic jams each weekday morning and evening.

The Modest Proposal also could be used as a means of resuscitating economically depressed areas. Two of the wealthiest counties in the United States are Montgomery and Fairfax, where the bureaucrats live. But since their presence would be required for only two weeks a year, federal employees need no longer take up permanent residence in or near the nation's capital. Federal employment could be made contingent upon taking up residence in economically depressed areas such as Appalachia and our decaying inner cities, thus spreading the wealth.

To achieve maximum effectiveness, the Modest Proposal should be coupled with a return to the spoils system, under which each senator and congressman would be given a certain number of patronage jobs to fill.

While most of the excesses from which our economy suffers have resulted from bureaucrats taking the ball Congress gave them and carrying it clear out of the stadium, it must not be forgotten that Congress initially authorized these programs, and they have continued with the sufferance of Congress. Idle minds are the devil's playground, and there are many idle minds in Congress.

If federal jobs paying an average of $21,000 a year for only two weeks' work were to be handed out by congressmen, they would be besieged morning and night by ambitious office-seekers and would have very little time left over for mischief-making. And since inevitably there must be more disappointed office seekers than satisfied ones, we would have a much healthier turnover in Congress each election.

As you can see, the economic and social benefits that would flow from enactment of Kelly's Modest Proposal are legion. But its chief value is that it is politically feasible.

Many pundits and politicians agree the draconian budget cuts President Reagan is proposing are prudent, long overdue and very likely essential to the survival of the Republic. But to a man, these sage observers agree the Reagan reforms "are not politically possible." This should tell us much about the value of politics. But we must face facts, and the facts are the entrenched interest groups in the "iron triangle" very likely will thwart the president's best efforts.

The Modest Proposal, on the other hand, knocks out one leg of the infamous iron triangle. Federal employes are hardly likely to oppose a measure which will make them ladies and gentlemen of leisure. Overnight the president's fiercest enemies could be converted into his staunchest allies.

I advance this Modest Proposal for the Salvation of the Republic in the deepest humility, with no desire for personal gain. My sole concern is for the well-being of the country. All I ask is that I be given a federal job so that I may properly oversee its implementation.