If you don't know what Joe Cortina, Jack Misner, bicycle tariffs, the 1980 Olympics and antibiotics have to do with the moral equivalent of war, you're missing out.

In the complex, labyrinthian way Congress does business, Joe Cortinaet all have everything to do with the energy legislation President Carter so badly wants.

That natural gas deregulation bill that is driving congressional conferees to despair started out as a bill for the private relief of Joe Cortina, who had a problem with East German musical instruments.

And the energy conservation bill that conferees agreed on really was about Jack Misner and his majestic schooner, the Panda, which is sailing somewhere in the far Atlantic.

Then there is the energy tax measure, which turns out to be a bicycle parts tariff bill in disguise. And coal conversion? Actually it's a measure to exempt bobsleds and luges from import duty when they're sent here for the 1980 winter Olympics.

Rounding out the package of energy legislation is public utility rate revision, which somehow turns out to be a suspension of duty on certain antibiotics in the doxorubicin hydrochloride family.

Now, for future reference, remember this: H.R. 1904, which is a bill to allow intravenous fat emulsion to be imported through mid-1980 duty free. We'll get back to this.

This state of affairs, in which apples seem to be confused with oranges, is not all that strange. It involves Congress and the Constitution and a term known as the "vehicle," another way of saying "a way to get a bill passed."

It goes back to President Carter and the energy legislation he proposed and urged Congress to adopt. The House delt with it as a package, set up a special committee and passed the whole thing as one bill.

In the Senate, however, it was different.There, they split up the package and doled out the pieces to committees which had different and conflicting jurisdictions.

To get the Senate portions moving to a House Senate conference, where differences could be worked out, the leadership tell upon the old gambit of attaching the pieces to noncontroversial bills that already had passed the House.

Thus, in the legislative parlance, the noncontroversial bills from the House became "vehicles" and the energy fragments from the Senate became "riders," which is to say they woudl ride to passage on the vehicle. Makes sense, no?

On natural gas deregulation, for example, they came up with H.R. 5289, a bill designed to relieve Joe Cortina of Tampa, Fla., of $46,000 in duties assessed on organs and other instruments he mistakenly imported.

On energy conservation, they spotted H.R. 5037, a bill to relieve Capt. Jack Misner of North Tonawanda, N.Y., of a $7,000 debt involving his 130-foot Panda, a vessel he was renovating to start a cruise business.

And so on it went, with each piece of the Senate's energy plan being attached to other bills that had moved without controversy through the House Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Fla.), who introduced and championed the private relief bill for constituent Cortina, commented. "This happens all the time . . . the Senate gets impatient and they'll take anything we send over and attach something of their own to it to get it moving."

The effect of what happened was that Cortina and the forgiveness of debt to the U.S. Customs Service were being held hostage to gas deregulation, which is still unresolved in the conference.

Noncontroversial it might have been, but the bill was important to Cortina, a septuagenarian importer of instruments who felt he had been unfairly stuck by the customs people.

The case caused a stir in Tampa, Cortina's son, Joe Jr., was so incensed about the government's treatment of his father that he publicly burned the green beret that he treasured from Army days.

The problem came up when the senior Cortina imported instruments from West Germany, which pay a duty betwee 5 and 17 per cent. A customs service investigation found, to Cortina's surprise that the instruments were from East Germany and should have been assessed a 40 per cent import tax.

Customs sent Cortina a $200,000 bill in late 1975. Cortina complained to Gibbons. The congressman made inquiries and Customs revised it down to $46,000.

Still unfair Gibbons decided and he introduced a bill to relieve Cortina of the debt. The Tampa man was "an innocent victim of some of the problems that come up in importing . . . and of some of the inequities of some of our own laws." Gibbons said.

The GIbbons bill passed the House and went to the Senate, where it soon became entangled in the national energy debate.

The case of Jack Misner was not much different. Misner bought his British-registry schooner in 1972 and took it to port in New York for repairs. Under customs law, if the boat remained more than three years Misner would have to pay import duty.

Misner couldn't get the parts he needed and his time ran out, meaning he stood to forfeit a $7,000 bond. His congressman, Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), put in a bill to excuse Misner from the debt. It passed the House, then it, too, got stuck in the energy plan.

But there's always a way out. Gibbons and Kemp, seeing their original relief bills were in trouble, reintroduced them as amendments to H.R. 1904, the noncontroversial fat emulsion bills.

Yesterday, President Carter signed H.R. 1904 - to the relief of Jose Cortina and Jack Misner, incidentally.

What happens to the original Cortina and Misner bills, now the energy bills? Will Cortina and Misner end up being helped twice? Will new vehicles have to be found? The answers are no, through technical amendments that will resolve that question. "We can get out of any problem we have with that . . .." said a Senate Finance Committee aide.