IT FINALLY DAWNED ON enough members of Congress yesterday that tying the paychecks of nearly a quarter-million federal workers to the settlement of complex congressional disputes over abortion and foreign aid was more than just a matter of making some white-collar bureaucrats squirm for a while - that the cutoff was an unfair, cruel victimization, of families who must live from paycheck to paycheck. All of a sudden, with astounding legislative efficiency, the congressional appropriations machinery revved into high gear to enact the necessary resolutions continuing the financial status quo through the end of this month.

The first smoke signal for some action had come from the Senate in the form of a pay resolution that the House ignored because the Constitution says that the House, not the Senate, must initiate money bills.But the message was received anyway, and House Appropriations Committee Chairman George Mahon (D-Tex.) went to work. First he tried unsuccessfully for unanimous consent to bring a resolution to the floor; then he succedded in whistling the measure through the Rules Committee and winning the necessary two-thirds vote of the House to act on the bill. The pay resolutin then passed by voice vote and was sent steaming to the Senate.

There, too - with dazzling alacrity - the resolutin won a prompt hearing and favorable report from the Senate Appropriations Committee before sailing the floor for another swift approval on its way to the President for signature. As we understand it, arrangements have also been made to rush through the necessary agency certifications so that next week's paychecks won't be short.

Now that's quite a day's work for Congress. It is also a curious example of how the legislative system can move when the spirit moves it - or at least when a proper sense of guilt creeps in. Still, before the swift conclusion erases all memory of this unhappy episode, we hope that members will find a lesson in it. The lesson we read is that toying with people's livelihoods, even for 13 days of a fiscal year, is an act of cruelty that should play no part in the legislative process.