WITH a forcefulness that caught all by surprise, a committee of House and Senate conferees fell into impassioned colloquy last year while searching for ways to provide more funds for worthy college students.

Not more funds for federal student loans; cuts in that program and others had already sailed through matter-of-factly earlier in the day. They were seeking more funds for themselves -- for their own childrens' education. In particular, they were spurred by the fervent appeal of Sen. Jake Garn (R-Utah) that it is impossible for him to make it on a senator's salary, what with three children in college and four more headed there.

When they finally solved their problem in the last days of the lame-duck Congress of 1982, they did it by writing into law a bicameral travesty.

Consider it: As now provided by acts of Congress, House members apparently are valued more highly than senators -- $9,000 a year higher. For the first time, senators and representatives no longer earn equal salaries.

Similarly, as now provided by acts of Congress, House members apparently are not to be trusted as highly as senators. House members need a rule limiting their outside income to hold them in ethical check; senators need no such rule, presumably because they are above ethical reproach.

This ludicrous state of affairs grew out of a problem that is real enough: The job of senator or congressman requires a top-quality salary to assure that top-quality people will be willing to serve. But it degenerated into a contest of top-quality name-calling: upper house versus lower house, shirts versus skins.

"Sanctimonious!" said Rep. Vic Fazio (D- Calif.), of the Senate's early insistence that the best way to increase congressional income was to wipe out the limit on honorariums from special interests. That would do the House no good, he argued, because House members are not as famous as senators and cannot earn enough that way.

"A ripoff!" said Sen. William Proxmire (D- Wis.), outraged by the House's original proposal to grant an exclusive tax break of $75 a day for members of both chambers (to defray the expense of maintaining residences in both Washington and their homestates).

What ultimately happened was this:

House members did the honorable (if impolitic) thing. They voted forthrightly to raise their salaries to $69,800, an increase of 15 percent from the $60,662.50 that both senators and congressmen had been paid.

Senators, however, had no stomach for such straighforward behavior. They voted instead to get rid of the ceiling on outside income that they themselves had decreed back in the 1970s, amid ruffles and flourishes about "ethics reforms." With that ceiling scheduled to take effect this year, they suddenly decided that members could take as many honoraria from private groups (up to $2,000 per occasion) as they could get their hands on.

So House members now owe their pay increases to the taxpayers, to whom they are accountable (they remain governed by a House rule restricting outside income to $18,200). Senators, however, owe their increases to special interest groups, to whom they are no doubt grateful.

Fazio, chairman of the House subcommittee on legislative appropriations and the driving force among the House conferees, says he really did not think things would turn out the way they did.

"Most of us were incredulous when the Senate would not do it the right way -- would not take the raise," he says. "But I was damned if we were simply going to sit by and take their proposal for outside income in ways that were . . . irrelevant for House members, and then have them sanctimoniously reject raises for us.

"In the long haul, we'll be judged to have done the positive thing. I frankly expected there would be people over there in the Senate who would say, 'Let's get our act together and have the courage of our convictions. Let's follow the lead of the House and vote ourselves a pay raise."

Jake Garn was not surprised. "I'd keep telling Congressman Fazio, 'You can send that bill for a raise over every week, and it will be defeated (in the Senate)'," Garn says.

Garn is both a champion father and the Senate's champion honoraria taker. In 1981, he got $78,000 in speaking fees, gave $30,000 to charity and kept $48,000 for himself.

"I've never made any apologies for honorariums," Garn says. "They're not taxpayers' money. You report all the money you receive, and then your constituents can judge exactly what you're doing . . . If you're a millionaire and can clip coupons a la Ted Kennedy or John Heinz, so be it. If not, then you need outside income."

A brief digression:

In 1977, the Senate enacted a code of ethics that declared that full disclosure alone is not enough. It clamped a $9,100 ceiling on outside income, deferring it so that the elder statesmen could get their fiscal affairs in order.

"I believe that there is a real potential for conflict of interest when a senator takes large sums of money for speaking to groups who have a direct interest in legislation before this body," said Sen. Dick Clark (D-Iowa). Added Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.): "When the public loses confidence in public institutions, there is nothing left. That is a very fragile cloak that covers this institution, and we in government are obligated to take whatever actions we can to maintain it and restore it."

It was not a smooth passage, however, as evidenced by a sharp exchange between longtime allies. Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) became unsettled because Sen. Edmund Muskie (D-Maine) had voted against a pay raise but favored unlimited honoraria.

Nelson: "The senator from Maine voted against the pay raise and then comes here to the chamber shedding hot tears, flooding the chamber with his lament (that) . . . we do not have enough income."

Muskie: "The senator . . . is putting a cap on my income and he has not given a damn . . . as to what the consequences on my personal financial life or that of my family may be. He has not asked me, for example, whether the choice will be to send my son to a first-rate law school or to a third-rate, whether or not my wife can buy a new wardrobe this year or have to wait until next year . . . We are being thrown to the wolves!"

On Capitol Hill, ethics is a sometime thing.

In voting themselves $12,900 raises back in 1977, the senators and representatives also clamped on strict ethics codes, limiting their outside earned income to 15 percent of their federal salaries. In the House, that ceiling was doubled, to 30 percent, two years ago. But in the Senate, it remained at 15 percent -- the $9,100.

The ceiling, however, never went into effect. It was about to last December whenthe senators voted, 54 to 38, to scrap the rule. (This wasn't the first time. In 1976 Congress passed a law limited honoraria of senators and congressmen to $25,000 a year; it was repealed in 1981.)

Fourteen of the senators who voted in 1977 for a ceiling on outside income switched and voted to make the sky the limit instead. The list of flip-floppers includes several who are running for president: Alan Cranston, John Glenn, Ernest Hollings and Gary Hart.

Hart's vote merits special attention, because he alone of that Senate group has converted his presidential campaign into a crusade against the evils of special interests (Cranston, Glenn and Hollings say they'll take all of the special interest contributions they can get). As a candidate for president, Hart has now vowed to take none of the special interests' money for his campaign; as a senator, he has voted to allow himself to take unlimited special interest money for his personal use.

The explanation is one of those wonderous works of political art. Hart believed there should be a firm, low ceiling on honoraria back in 1977, his press secretary, Kathryn Bushkin, explained. But the Senate had deferred the ceilingrage of and gradually raised it.

"And once it got up to $25,000, he felt it was a meaningless cap, because it was so high already,." she said. Moreover, Hart had decided that if the ceilings were lifted further, he would join those taking more money than the old ceiling provided. "So he said it would be hypocritical," Bushkin concluded.

The taking of honoraria in exchange for speeches is a time-honored tradition, practiced not only by those who make laws but also by those who watch the lawmakers, including many of Washington's most prominent journalists. There is a considerable debate, however, over allowing those who make the nation's laws to accept money from groups with a special interest in legislation before the Congress -- and especially before the committees on which they serve.

Congress has barred executive branch officials from accepting honoraria, in order to assure that there is no conflict of interest. Congress feels it is part of the job of an assistant secretary of the Treasury, for example, to explain government policy to banking groups -- and that federal salaries are adequate compensation for such speechmaking..

But a different standard is applied to those federal employes who happen to be members of Congress. Garn has accepted thousands of dollars from groups with banking interests while serving on the banking committee.

"I make no apologies," he says. "Executive branch guys are not elected. This is a matter of a personal thing between my constituents and me. The absolute key is full disclosure. . . . Maybe they (the banking interest groups) think they are getting access. But I'll see anyone whether I am getting money from them or not."

Proxmire, who also serves on the banking committee, scoffs at such logic. "You're much more likely to be sensitive to the concerns of the people who paid you to speak," he says. "I never take (honoraria for) a speech where there's a conflict of interest. What these (banking committee) guys do when they speak before the American Banking Association and the savings and loans and the unions with banking interests -- the conflict couldn't be more conspicuous."

The plain truth is that letting the special interests pay for the raises that senators were afraid to vote themselves is bad business. The ethics considerations that were valid in the 1970s are valid today. And the special relationship that the Jake Garns of the Senate have with their constituents should be strong enough to allow them to vote themselves the raises they deserve.

A pay raise carries with it certain political liabilities. "There's a lot of heat," says Rep. Fazio. "It's still continuing. People have a National Inquirer view of a congressman's life in the big city. We're not all dressed in tuxedos every night, eating canapes at an embassy. But when I go to my town hall meetings and people are up in arms because we're . . . cutting cost-of-living increases of federal benefits, it's always put to me in the context of, 'And you just voted yourself a raise!' I just hope we did it in a way that will be of some courage to people in the future."

Noble, but not likely. Not as long as the dominant view is held by senators such as Garn, who see no incongruity in voting sharp cuts in federal aid for loans to send needy kids to college, and then pleading the case for more honoraria for speechmaking to send his kids to college.

"I'm not talking about taxpayers' money," Garn says. "I'm talking about outside income. If I were talking about increasing my salary with taxpayers' money, I'd say, 'Yes, that's a true conflict.' It would be (a conflict) if I said, 'Hell, let's cut student loan programs, but let's vote ourselves more money for our own kids' education.' "

So out of all this comes a moral for parents beset by tuition woes: Let them make speeches. And so it was on that day last June when members of the House-Senate conference committee on the urgent supplemental appropriations of 1982 could move impassively through votes on student loans ofand housing subsidies and other programs -- and then plunge into debate on the only matter that seemed to move them to strong feelings: raising their own incomes.

It tells you something about the mindset of our elected leaders. What it comes down to, says Garn, recalling the emotion the issue engendered, is that senators are people, too.

"It is human nature for people to get more excited about things that affect them personally," he remarks. "I do not think we can be more perfect in our feelings about taking care of our families than anyone else -- be they butchers, bakers or bricklayers."