CONGRESS APPEARS determined one way or another to have a say in how to treat veterans of the Vietnam era who were separated from the service with less-than-honorable discharges. In March, the President took a hand in this matter by creating a special program for speeding up the review of discharges of veterans of the Vietnam War years. Having already declared a form of amnesty for Vietnamera draft evaders, his idea was to apply the same spirit to the deserters and others who actually served in the Vietnam years and got into trouble; the accelerated review was to be done in the same spirit of compassion and forgiveness that energized the handling of the draft evaders. Immediately, one congressional reaction was that the program was a giveaway of veterans' benefits to "nonperformers" who didn't deserve them. Accordingly, Rep. Robin Beard (R-Tenn.) offered an amendment that would deny veterans' benefits to everyone whose discharge was upgraded under its provisions. The House tacked the Beard amendment onto an independent agency appropriations bill by a two-to-one majority.

Fortunately, the momentum of the Beard amendment was temporarily slowed last Tuesday when a conference committee on the appropriations bill sent the amendment back to both floors for reconsideration. While it is true that some of the veterans whose discharges have been upgraded are probably not deserving of the full range of veterans' benefits, the Beard amendment represents a meat-tax approach that would punish many veterans who clearly are deserving of their benefits; it is expected to be taken up shortly by the full House.

Throughout this debate, Rep. Beard has maintained that he merely wants to put a hold on things - to preserve "the status quo for one year" and to give Congress the chance to develop more permanent legislation regarding benefits. The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee has been doing exactly that. It has been developing an approach that offers responsible compromises between the Carter program and the Beard approach. In fairness to the Congress, a large part of the problem is that the President's program was hastily and loosely thrown together. It paid madequate attention to shadings beyond the six broad categories (satisfactory combat tours, war wounds, trouble-free tours of duty prior to the one that terminated in a less-than-honorable discharge, etc.) that were set forth as grounds for upgarding of discharges and automatic granting of benefits.

The legislation reported out of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee and sponsored by Sens. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) addresses the crucial issue of discharge upgarding by holding that upgarding under the Carter program need not automatically confer benefits. The Cranston-Thurmond bill would try to make careful distinctions to provide benefits to those individuals who were unjustly discharges. And in case where benefits were found not to be justified, it would at least speed the process of extending compassion and forgiveness by allowing hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen - from the Vietnam era, as well as before and after - to clear their names of the life-long stigma of a less-than-honorable discharge. This is a complex question of equity that would be decided not by the whims or passions of Congress - and not by the well-intentioned mandatory critera of the Carter program - but by the field-grade officers who are on the review boards.

A second feature of Cranston-Thousands is that no individual would be worse off from having come forward under the Carter program. Those who might be denied benefits under Cranston-Thurmond would at least be allowed to keep their upgraded discharges.

These are two of the most important parts of the Cranston Thurmond approach. Although it may be seen as a compromise bill, it does provide the President with the machinery to offer relief to ex-servicemen that his own program is not providing now. Currently, the Department of Defense projects only a 12 per cent participation rate in the Carter program, which comes to a total of 17,000 out of an estimated 161.000 ehgible.

The President did well to get involved in this issue and to do so in the spirit that he did. But he also left his program vulnerable to the assault upon it that has developed in the House. At this point, it is probably not going to be possible to satvage any special review of less-than-honorable Vietnam-era discharges without including the revisions contemplated by the Cranston-Thurmond bill.