FIVE YEARS AGO, Congress gave state and local governments new flexibility to move welfare recipients off the rolls and into jobs. Some states chose the route of requiring welfare recipients to participate in "workfare" programs in order to continue receiving benefits. Other states began voluntary programs that provide more job training and counseling and offer the option of performing unpaid community service as work experience. The city council here -- finally -- took the matter up this past spring. But it is disappointing to note that some promising ideas have been tabled for at least another legislative session.

Through the federal Work Incentive Program (WIN), the District government says it helped find jobs for 1,573 welfare recipients in 1985. This year two very dissimilar bills were introduced to beef up that score. City council member H. R. Crawford took the mandatory work-for-your-benefits approach. Council member John Ray's bill was less coercive, more experimental and therefore more attractive. It would have set up a pilot program for 1,000 welfare recipients and offered a range of services from education, training and referrals to day-care and health-care assistance. Mayor Marion Barry's administration has offered its own alternative, similar to Mr. Ray's plan, which it says would "provide comprehensive employment, training and education programs and extensive assessment and support services, including day care, health coverage and stipends" to 4,500 welfare recipients.

Mr. Ray's bill was cosponsored by 11 of the other 12 council members, but human services committee chairman Polly Shackleton and the mayor had reservations about its cost. Blaming impending recesses and a crowded legislative calendar, she offered a substitute bill that supposedly incorporated elements of Mr. Crawford's and Mr. Ray's bills. Mr. Ray voted to table her bill, without objection from Mrs. Shackleton.

Programs to train welfare recipients for work and help them find jobs are uphill efforts. But a comprehensive recent study of what the states are doing has concluded they can have marginally good effects. The council and the mayor have been remiss in not addressing the task. Crowded calendars and impending recesses are a limp excuse.