Today's debate over political activity in the civil service has not changed much since the turn of the century. In 1892, Theodore Roosevelt was civil service commissioner, and civil service participation in partisan politics had been forbidden for a decade. The commissioner, nonetheless, encountered what his biographer described as "enough evidence of wanton illegality by Federal employees to fill a fleet of police wagons." Though TR's own party was the beneficiary, he still urged that the government worker "must be taught in one way or another that his duty is to do the work of the government for the whole people, and not to pervert his office for the use of any party or faction."

About a dozen years later, another New Yorker, who was not destined for the presidency, cursed the civil service reforms. George Washington Plunkitt was boss of Tammany Hall and, though a fervent partisan, sought common cause with the other side of the aisle. "All leaders of the two parties should get together and make an open, nonpartisan fight against the civil service, their common enemy. The time is fast coming when civil service or the politicians will have to go," he said.

Three generations have since passed, and both groups are still with us. But Plunkitt's plea for the politicians to unite against what was then known as "good government" has taken on a new form. This time, the alliance is between the politicians and the public employee unions, with the larger public unrepresented. There is, making its way through Congress, a bipartisan effort to repeal the Hatch Act, the statute passed in 1939 that prohibits partisan politicking by nearly 3 million federal workers and hundreds of thousands of others employed by state and local governments. The repeal of the Hatch Act would alter fundamentally the relationships among citizens, civil servants and the nation's political leadership in ways so important that the proposal deserves more than the cursory examination it has received thus far.

Why are some in Congress trying to do this? In the first place, they are under pressure from people who know the Hatch Act works. Last February, the presidents of three large federal employee unions were suspended for two months from their federal jobs because of illegal endorsements of the 1984 presidential campaign of Vice President Mondale. But they want more than retroactive pardons. They and their associates want to become the dominant power over the $76 billion federal payroll, and acting through politicians whom they think they will neutralize with campaign contributions and political "volunteers," they want to acquire decisive power over what the federal government does and how it goes about doing it. At a time when they protest growing public criticism of the "bureaucrat," they are prepared to forfeit even more public regard by demanding that the federal work force, whatever else it might become, must also be an army of foot soldiers in partisan political campaigns.

If they succeed, they will have destroyed an important balance in our system. The civil service is one of those things, like the political parties themselves, that are not mentioned in the Constitution, but which nevertheless contribute to stable constitutional government. Our democratic system requires a sense among citizens that once policies are made through the normal political processes, those policies will then be implemented in an impartial way. If it were politicized to the degree sought by the pending "reform," the bureaucracy would turn into something approaching a fourth branch of government in its own right, disdainful both of an executive branch inevitably more circumscribed in dealing with it and of a legislative branch even more unwilling to restrain it.

What is more, relations within the bureaucracy would begin to deteriorate. Federal managers do not welcome the intrusion of purely political criteria and opinions into their work places. Today, an employee's political opinions are not particularly relevant to his peers, his superiors or his subordinates. But the free-for-all of political campaigning and fund raising would add a new opportunity for poisonous divisiveness. Even if "political retaliation" is not often directed one against the other, workers would certainly believe that it is. And no one should believe that standards of integrity, efficiency and productivity would have an easy way in such an environment.

Like so many other "reforms," the proposed repeal of the Hatch Act is proffered as a defense of someone's "rights." But in truth, and as everyone knows, civil servants are protected in the political rights that matter most. The restrictions on other political activities are in fact part of the bargain they make with a public that gives them permanent tenure, generous support, substantial respect and real power. It is not a bad bargain. It has worked well for decades. The sense of partnership and good faith that allows it to continue is more important than the political ambitions of the people who want to undo it. The writer is director of the Office of Personnel Management. BY VIETOR