THE CARTER administration's hasty legislation on natural gas will help a little - but, to be frank, not much. It's better than doing nothing. But by January, it's too late to do much for the winter's fuel and energy supplies. The emergency bill now before Congress will push the gas shortage around a little, making it a little less harsh in the regions of greatest hardship and a little more harsh in the places that so far have been more fortunate. It won't do anything to enforce conservation or increase production or rationalize the use of natural gas. To do that requires getting rid of the absurd and obsolute structure of gas price controls that encourages Americans to use too much of it for the wrong things. The country is going to have to pay more for the stuff, unless it wants to institutionalize the winter gas shortage as an annual event.

For federal policy, the next two months are not the real issue. Regardless of public action, the outcome this year now depends mainly on the weather. If the country is lucky the spring will come early, and if it isn't the strain and layoffs and misery will continue. For the people who run the government, the real question is next winter.

Is Congress prepared to think that far ahead? Don't laugh; the country has been through this routine before. Just a year ago, a Senate bill to deregulate gas prices came to the floor of the House where it encountered vast indignation at the unseemly haste with which it was being pushed forward. The bill was set aside for more mature consideration. Then the weather got warm and everybody forgot about gas - everyone, we ought to note, except the Federal Power Commission, which in July published a forecast of this winter's shortage. But it was hot in July, and who takes fuel shortages seriously in midsummer? Then, in a strange and utterly unexpected turn of events, in November it started to get cold again. What could be more surprising than to see the FPC's forecasts actually becoming the reality?

It's been the story of the ant and the grasshopper every year for the past four. Every year when it gets cold, there's a flap over gas supplies; the flap is greater than usual this year because it's colder than usual. But each year when it gets warm, the urgency of the issue fades and Congress' attention wanders.The grasshoppers keep voting for further study of this difficult question, etc., etc., and so far they have generally won. When you think what Aesop extracted from those two mere insects in the way of moral instruction, you can only wonder what he might have done with the 535 members of Congress and the natural gas industry.