SOMETIMES VIRTUE is rewarded in Washington, if only fleetingly. Last week cost-cutting whistleblower A. Ernest Fitzgerald won the Paul Douglas Ethics in Government Award, which God knows he deserved. It came at a moment when cost-cutting has gone completely out of style in the Defense Department and when Ernie Fitzgerald, unquenchably cheerful though he is, is at a very low ebb. He's not surrendering, mind you, but he has been defeated.

The only thing they're downsizing at the Pentagon these days is people who go over the ledgers in search of waste and extravagance. Fitzgerald was famously fired in 1970 by Richard Nixon. He fought in the courts for 12 years to get his job back. Now in the new glory days, his grade has been reduced from GS-18 to what he calls SL-00 and he is kept away from all policy decisions.

"They shrivel you up," says Fitzgerald, who first got in trouble when he told a Senate committee, headed by former senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, what the C-5A plane really cost -- only $2 billion more than the Pentagon was admitting.

Proxmire turned out to honor Fitzgerald at the Senate Labor Committee hearing room last week. So did his Sancho Panza, Richard Kaufman. There was a time when senators like Proxmire got a great deal of attention. Now the waste-in-government banner is carried by a Republican, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa. He came to see Fitzgerald, too, and recounted glumly what happened when he and Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.) introduced a bill that would have required the Pentagon to return the extra $10 billion in appropriations that Congress forced on it earlier this year. "We got 44 votes," he said.

As Fitzgerald said in his somber acceptance remarks, "Some of the Pentagon scams we once deplored are viewed as virtues. The unit costs of defense are scandalously high, and going up. Porking-up contracts for political purposes, always present, but formerly stoutly denied, is now a good thing. It makes good jobs.'"

Anyone inclined to object to the ways of the Pentagon is easily rendered silent. Last June, the totally irrelevant B-2 bomber sailed through the House with the help of the Black Caucus, which provided the swing votes. Black Caucus members are traditionally priority hounds, pressing for the needs of poor children over hardware. But the crafty Pentagon spread subcontracts the length and breadth of the land, and certain representatives who used to scream that immunization and school lunches should come first in a great country meekly voted for 20 more planes that cost $1.5 billion apiece and okayed a total bill for $31.5 billion.

The love affair of the Pentagon with its contractors, a staple of Capitol romance, has blazed up again in the Clinton administration. Republicans claim that the president who never wore the uniform has no right to "hollow out" the armed forces. Clinton sent a rational budget to the Hill, but the Republicans invited the service secretaries in, wept over their plight and begged them to say what they really needed. The Pentagon is, of course, anxious to share extra goodies with their contractors whom they treat the way a sugar daddy treats a little mink-seeking bimbo. The most recent example of its doting is the Pentagon's move to pay the defense corporation giants for the costs of various mergers.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Lawrence J. Korb, a Reagan-era Pentagon official who now works at the Brookings Institution, called the subsidies "a most egregious example of corporate welfare." The House voted down the billions it would take to keep the corporations happy, but the Senate went along with Air Force Secretary Sheila Widnall's sentimental view that the Pentagon and its suppliers are "partners." Fitzgerald said it best when accepting his award: "Congress seems to confuse overseeing with overlooking."

You don't hear Pentagon outrages discussed on the stump. The president is uneasy talking about the military. His vice president brags about the increases instituted by Clinton -- "three times in three years." Surely the administration has nothing to apologize for. The Pentagon budget came to $265 billion this year, which is 75 per cent of what it was during the Reagan buildup and the height of the Cold War. The Pentagon always knew it could ride out the periodic tempests over its extravagances, things like $600 toilet seats and $7,600 coffeepots. These are trifles compared to the pork that is produced.

It was very nice they gave a prize and a party to Ernie Fitzgerald, but it would be nicer if they gave him something more, like an effective whistleblower's law that would really protect people who tell the truth. (The law we have, Fitzgerald says, "makes matters worse.") What would be great for all of us is if Congress would own up to the fact that money squandered by the Pentagon is the real thing, the same as could be spent on schools and libraries and oil for old people in the winter. What's worst about what is going on now at the Pentagon is that nobody even pretends to care. The mantra is "more."