THE 101ST Congress should have been able to pass legislation reforming the government's principal job training program. The administration and key members of both parties in House and Senate were agreed a year ago on what needed to be done. The relevant committees seemed eager to do it. But it didn't happen. The House passed its version 416 to 1, but not until the last week in September. The Senate, in part because of a dispute over the funding formula -- which states would gain and which lose -- never took up its version. The program continues in faulty form; two years have been lost.

Job training is not a glamorous area of government. If it is done right, the cost is high and the success rate is most often low. When the Reagan administration came to office in 1981, anearly act was to abolish the ambitious CETA training program, which included the provisionof jobs in the public sector and had become, or been made into, a symbol of government gone too far.

In the deep recession year of 1982, however, both parties wanted to be seen as addressing unemployment. The result was a successor to CETA, the Job Training Partnership Act, among whose authors was the senator from Indiana, now Vice President Dan Quayle. The JTPA was to be different from CETA, a leaner program that would achieve higher placement rates at lower cost. Those were laudable goals, but in practice they produced a kind of skimming, an emphasis on the easier cases among the unemployed who, particularly in the growth years that followed, would likely have found jobs on their own. Both House and Senate bills were aimed, as was the administration's proposal, at shifting the spotlight back toward younger people especially, with multiple problems and greater need.

That's a good step to take that now won't be taken for a while. The recession, if one develops as expected, may divert the next Congress even more than the less-than-inspiring question of how to divide the funds diverted from the last one. Job training is no one's panacea, but it can help, and if it's to be done, it ought to be done right.