The Post's Sept. 17 editorial eloquently presents the views of those who seek to abolish the death penalty in the 37 states in which it now exists, and who would also bar its application for the most heinous of federal crimes. The editorial concludes that the crime bill now pending in the House of Representatives would ''at least be a smaller step in the wrong direction'' than its Senate counterpart. The reason: the House bill significantly limits the number of federal offenses for which the death penalty could be imposed and rejects retired Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.'s proposal to expedite the judicial review of capital cases.

This expression of opposition by The Post to the death penalty and habeas corpus reform is not new. In a Sept. 25, 1989, editorial on the Powell Committee recommendations, The Post stated, after observing that appellate review in capital cases averages more than eight years, ''{W}e disagree with the premise that delay is a problem, because we think that capital punishment is wrong, and would hope that all executions could be delayed until 37 states change their laws.''

It is worth noting that President Bush also believes the House crime bill as currently drafted is a step in the wrong direction. When he met with federal, state and county prosecutors recently at the White House, the president announced his opposition to the House bill and stated that he ''will not accept a crime bill that is tougher on law enforcement than it is on criminals.'' The House crime bill is, very simply, an anti-law enforcement measure, and if enacted, I and other senior advisers to the president will recommend that he veto it.

Where the president and The Post greatly differ is the direction in which this country should go in the area of criminal justice. On May 15, 1989, the president announced his approach to the imposition of the death penalty and the reform of existing habeas corpus procedures. He sought to establish constitutional procedures necessary to implement the capital punishment provisions now on the books and to extend the availability of the death penalty to other heinous crimes, including mail bombings, the mass murder caused by planting explosives in an airplane and hostage taking resulting in death.

Moreover, the president's proposal would bring some finality to the seemingly unending process of appeals by convicted felons. His proposal, embracing the goal sought by Justice Powell, would provide the states with the option of establishing a 180-day limitation on the filing of an initial federal habeas corpus petition. Once the defendant has had the benefit of one full course of litigation through the state and federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, the sentence could be carried out. In exchange for this increased finality, the Powell Committee recommended that the states be required to appoint attorneys who meet articulated standards of competence for indigent defendants. These recommendations will be embodied in an amendment to be offered on the House floor by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) with the support of the administration and Justice Powell.

As it now stands, the House bill rejects the core recommendation of the Powell Committee and permits repetitive and redundant filings to delay indefinitely the imposition of the sentence. In fact, under the House bill, claims that have already been rejected can be revisited.

Justice Powell, who personally opposes the death penalty, has charged that support for the House language ''would in practical effect be a vote to eliminate capital punishment in the United States." In a recent letter to me, Justice Powell reiterated his opposition to the ''compromise'' that The Post supports. He concluded that it, too, contains ''major flaws'' that would make it ''extremely difficult'' for the states to enforce death penalty laws.

The Post has been most helpful in identifying the course desired by opponents to the death penalty. The president, meanwhile, has articulated the concerns of the law enforcement community. Now it is time for members of Congress, as the representatives of the people, to choose. DICK THORNBURGH U.S. Attorney General Washington