TWENTY YEARS AGO LAST WEEK, at the invitation of three area leaders with a pleasant enough idea, some 40 officials from around this region gathered on the fifth floor of the District Building. The proposal, advanced by then-president of the Board of District Commissioners Robert E. McLaughlin, State Sen. Charles R. Fenwick of Arlington County and Maryland State Sen. Edward S. Northrop of Montgomery County, was simply to talk about working together on common problems. But that talk didn't come easily. Commissioner McLaughlin looked around and began, "Perhaps to break the ice, it would be well for all of us to know who the other people are . . . Would you rise and state your name and connection?"

And so was born, in April 1957, what is today the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. There were to be many more such polite discussion sessions, too, for that was about all that any of a tiny number of regional councils in the nation were doing in those days. The differences was that this region's COG eventually became a national example of a serious regional group capable of thrashing out agreements on regional approaches to increasingly sensitive issues cutting across jurisdictional frontiers. Having endured such severe tests (and some stormy sessions) for two decades, the Council of Governments here has become not only a highly respected organization throughout the region, but one that is considered vital to the future prosperity of all its 16 local-government members.

To begin with, COG in 1977 has certain specific responsibilities as the official metropolitan clearing house for the awarding of federal grants in this area - for roads, airports, mass transit, hospitals, libraries, criminal justice planning, comprehensive health plans, neighborhood development, open space and water and sewer facilities. From this official responsibility - and thanks to a stable of talented staff experts assembled by COG's popular and erudite executive director, Walter A. Scheiber - the organization has continued to expand its scope without becoming a "supergovernment."

This sophiscated regional cooperation must be strengthened still more in the years ahead if the quality of life throughout Greater Washington is to improve. The most severe problems today have to do with the area's water supply, the financing of the region's transportation system and the development of specific, uniform agreements on plans for the use and conservation of gas, oil, electricity, gasoline and other such resources. These are tall orders, but as we've noted, COG has already outgrown the theoretical-urban-discussion phase of regionalism. It's a matter now of maintaining and even accelerating the momentum already provided by solid accomplishments in dealing with down-to-earth issues that touch people and challenge the structures and powers of local governments. The movement toward practical and productive regionalism deserves the strongest support of this community.