AFTER THE HOUSE of Representatives failed to approve major changes in the Hatch Act the other night, the news stories reported that the big losers were the labor unions. And, given the way winners and losers are thought of on Capitol Hill, that's certainly one way you could look at it. But it seems to us that the real losers were not just the unions, although they had invested a good deal in lobbying for the changes; the real losers - not to be too grand about it - were all people with a stake in the equity of our democratic system. The Hatch Act, after all, denies to millions of government employees a fundamental democratic right to involve themselves in the selection of a government and the making of national policy.

The basic flaw in the Hatch Act - and the reason it needs substantial change - is that it does not address itself to the right problems, and, as a consequence, it punishes the wrong people. The right problems have to do with: 1) how to stop politicians or political parties from compelling government employees to become their foot soldiers and financial supporters, and 2) how to keep government employees from using their power for political purposes. The Hatch Act's solution is not to go after the evil acts - forcing people to do things they don't want to do - but to eliminate the opportunity for those acts to occur by taking away political rights. That is like a law that attempts to reduce rape by barring women from appearing in public: It would certainly reduce the opportunity for the crime to occur - but at a considerable cost in personal freedom.

It seems to us that if Congress would look at this problem in terms of protecting political rights from abuse, rather than eliminating the opportunity for abuse, the solution would suggest itself. The first half of that solution would be to permit practically all government employees to act like ordinary citizens in exercising these rights. The second half would be to punish substantially anyone who abuses the exercise of this newly granted freedom. That would require special policing, and any amendment of the Hatch Act ought to make provisions for this.

The main opposition to this kind of change in the Hatch Act seems to be the fear that labor unions - not government employees - will indeed be the big winners. Frankly, we think that is something of a bugaboo. We don't foresee all government workers marching to the same drummer - any more than we believe that industrial workers or building trades workers or whatever can be coerced into voting in one big bloc. But if Congress believes this to be a major concern, it should be able to devise legislation to restrain unions from trying to exercise excessive political influence over their members. The point is that union power is not at the heart of this matter. The central purpose of the current congressional effort to amend the Hatch Act is to restore the political rights of government workers. Obviously, genuine restoration, in this context, means granting political freedom for those workers in a way that would not permit them to use that freedom to limit the political rights of others.