TO A NEWCOMER HERE, the headline stripped across the Metro page of this newspaper the other day probably seemed encouraging: "DHR to Begin Screening for Welfare Overpayments." True, a newcomer might not know what "DHR" stands for - but then neither did its director. Moreover, the story starts off well enough:

The D.C. Department of Human Resources will begin a new screening program next week to reduce overpayments to welfare recipients and remove ineligible families from the city's relief rolls, Mayor Walter E. Washington announced yesterday.

That should appeal to any taxpayer's sense of good government, not to mention the ever-watchful city overseers in Congress. We'd cheer, but a little DHR histroy restrains us. Return with us to those thrilling clips of yesteryear:

May 31, 1972 - "D.C. Welfare Overpayments Revealed." DHR director Joseph P. Yeldell reports that investigators from his department "have done a tremendous job. I think that we are finding that there is a great deal of change that can be made in the caseload situation, particularly with such intense investigative review."

March 21, 1973 - Mr. Yeldell speculates that closer scrutiny of eligibility ("quality control," he calls it) may be one reason for a decline in the caseload.

Feb. 10, 1974 - "City Plans to Curb Welfare Cheating . . . An intensified drive against welfare cheats - with part of the $8 million in anticipated savings going for higher payments to illegitimate recipients - is planned by the D.C. Department of Human Resources." In this report, a department study finds that "10.9 per cent of the familes [receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children] were ineligible, 24.5 per cent were overpaid and 3.8 per cent underpaid. Bureaucratic error was blamed for 10.2 per cent of the overpayment cases and 1.5 per cent of the ineligible cases."

Oct. 11, 1974 - "Yeldell said yesterday the percentage of ineligibles has increased from 10.9 per cent of the caseload to 14.2 per cent this year. In addition, the percentage of overpayments made to recipients has increased from 24.5 per cent to 26.4 per cent."

May 17, 1975 - Mr. Yeldell cites a new computerized system as "another step in the process of strengthening the District's ability to determine public assistance eligibility and correct overpayments."

Sept. 23, 1976 - Mr. Yeldell tells a Senate subcommittee that the error rate on assistance to ineligibles is down from 21 per cent in April to 19 per cent.

Dec. 16, 1976 - The U.S. Department of Health Education and Welfare reports that the city's error rate for the first half of the year was 23.3 per cent - "more than one-third higher than the rate of inaccuracies found here in 1973 when HEW began monitoring the program."

Well, without going into the equally sorry histories of other payments (Medicaid, for example, with the highest error rate found by HEW in a national survey for fiscal 1976), it should be clear that DHR's "Yeldell years? of mismanagement don't offer much basis for optimism about the latest "news" from Mayor Washington. They do confirm what most of us knew all along, however - that the biggest welfare scandal in Washington is the Department of Human Resources.