Ralph Nader called the other day to ask if I ever felt strongly about something no one else seemed to care about. About twice a week, I said dryly, giving Nader all the opening he needed. In a flash, he was exclaiming about the recent federal pay hike -- a topic that has always failed to excite me. Then Nader dropped his bomb: Dan Quayle just got a $45,000 raise. I am not excited. I am numbed.

Soon a package from Nader arrived. It is characteristic of the man. In a town where everyone has a resplendent letterhead, Nader still writes on plain white paper. He enclosed a copy of a letter he had typed (complete with typos) to Quayle himself. How, he asks the vice president, can he be in favor of maintaining the minimum wage at $3.80 an hour while accepting a wage increase of more than $22 an hour? It's not a bad question.

In all probability, Quayle will not stoop to answer it. Others might, though, and they will make the usual apples-and-oranges rebuttal, which comes down to this: the salary of the vice president should never be compared to that of a busboy. We are talking apples and . . . You see what I mean.

But in his letter to Quayle, Nader touched on something that is beyond economics. It's about trust. It's about a compact between the governed and the governing in which the former permit the latter a good deal of latitude. The average person, having voted, expects to get on with his life, not watch politicians all the time. But having killed a pay raise bill back in 1989, the public now finds that something incredible has happened. The essence of the dead bill is law. The public is entitled to see this as yet another example of Washington doing whatever Washington wants.

Most politicians are aware of that attitude. It accounts for why the public endorses limiting members of Congress to 12 years of service. The concept is backed by the GOP for selfish reasons (it can only gain, since most incumbents are Democrats), but it's supported by ordinary people because they feel locked out of the system: alienated, insignificant, forgotten.

When, recently, I wrote in favor of term limitations, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) wrote me back. Very tongue in cheek (I hope), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee suggested that term limitations ought to be imposed on columnists since, as anyone can see, some of them are tired hacks who have been captured by Washington and its evil ways. Such a wit, that Rostenkowski. But the chairman was making a point -- an important one: If experience is important in human endeavors why, then, should Congress be the exception?

For this I have no answer. Nor can I say why a statute should do by fiat what the people already can do at the polls. My own feeling is that term limitations are a good way to get Congress's attention. Do something. Do something about the pernicious effect of money on the election as well as the legislative process. Rostenkowski, for one, says he hears that message and he's trying. Maybe if he was facing a career-ender he would try harder.

The mood "out there" is sour. And yet here comes a raise only slightly more modest than the one vociferously rejected by the public in 1989. That, though, was when times were flush. The recent raise was announced by President Bush this month -- in the teeth of a recession. If there is such a thing as a compact between the people and their government, this raise rips it. The timing is awful; the amounts unseemly.

After detailing some of the new raises -- $28,500 (25 percent) for members of Congress, Nader says this to Quayle: "Now look at the other America. A worsening recession with ever larger mass layoffs are the daily stuff of newspaper coverage." In his letter, Nader went on to mention the savings and loan debacle and even the federal budget deficit. (Uncle Sam didn't do so well this year.) But on the phone to me he mentioned something else as well: that moral compact. It was then that he really caught my attention.

I never thought congressmen or federal workers ought to make what the average guy does. But throughout the country, state and local governments are going into hock, unemployment lines are lengthening and certain politicians (Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, for example) have taken a pay cut. During the Depression, Nader says, Congress twice cut its pay "to set an example for the rest of the country." But this Congress and current administration officials are about to accept a pay increase -- which is hardly setting any example at all. Instead, it's following one: Marie Antoinette's.