THE EFFORT BY Microsoft to get the proposed budget of the Justice Department's antitrust division slashed fits a comical caricature of the thuggish company that Microsoft's enemies believe the software giant to be. It would be comical, that is, except that the effort was real. Microsoft's lobbyists sought to knock $9 million out of the division's budget request even as a federal judge ponders the merits of the department's antitrust case against the company. The effort appears to have largely failed; the conference committee has settled on a figure closer to the administration's request than to the lower figure approved by the House of Representatives that Microsoft was pushing. But Microsoft's bid is only marginally less objectionable for having been less ineffective.

The company is, to be sure, entitled to defend itself in the litigation as vigorously as it sees fit. Indeed, the issues in the Microsoft case are far more complicated than Microsoft's foes like to acknowledge. But for the defendant in an antitrust action to make its conflict with the government into an appropriations vendetta demeans the very real issues the government has raised in the case and the court system that has been asked to adjudicate those issues. A law enforcement agency should not be threatened with punishment for seeking vigorously to enforce its vision of the law.

Microsoft contends that there were irregularities in the department's handling of its case, and that it is within its rights to advise members of these problems. But the fact that Microsoft has the right to lobby -- and even that other companies with interests in the case have also lobbied the legislative and executive branches -- doesn't make the lobbying any less unseemly. If Microsoft has a gripe, it should make its complaint to the court hearing its case.