THE RULE of public life, enshrined in the civics texts, is that government should generally take the lowest bid. Programs that reserve or otherwise seek to steer government contracts to firms controlled by minority groups are a departure from the rule; they set a different standard for doing business. We have cautiously endorsed such programs in the past, in part on the basis that governments have valid social objectives as well as the obligation to taxpayers to minimize costs.

The minority business programs are a form of affirmative action; the idea is that the government contracts will nurture businesses that otherwise might fail, thereby fostering both wealth and jobs. That would seem to be a reasonable use of the government's market power, the more so because, at the federal level though not in the District, the share of contracts going to firms controlled by minority-group members remains painfully small.

Now comes a series of events that seems to support a contrary view -- not the well-worn argument that affirmative action is unfair, but the cynical view that these programs are just another highway into the cookie jar. The Wedtech investigation, in one part of which Rep. Mario Biaggi was indicted recently, and in which an independent counsel is now exploring the roles of both former White House aide Lyn Nofziger and Attorney General Edwin Meese, involves a so-called 8(a) firm that was soliciting government business under the special rules reserved for minority contractors. The charges on which former labor secretary Raymond Donovan was recently tried involved the relationship between his construction company and a minority subcontractor. Some of the contracts currently under much-publicized investigation by the U.S. attorney here were let under the District government's extensive minority business set-aside programs.

Mr. Donovan was acquitted, while the Wedtech and District investigations are still going on; we have no idea how they will come out. Assume even that they come out badly; the fact that a program can be abused does not convict it. But this is not these programs' only burden. For a long time there have been questions, at least at the federal level, as to the benefits derived: How many firms have these programs truly saved? How many graduates have they produced? Where on the income scale have the federal dollars gone? We continue to believe that the set-aside efforts do some good, but increasingly that becomes a close call. As even their friends must recognize, these disorganized programs need some help if they are to surviv