HUBERT HUMPHREY left behind a proposal, brought to public attention after his death, to collect the scattered and badly coordinated bits of American foreign aid into one organizational place, the better for the President to direct and the Congress to oversee. He figured this would permit a more efficient use of the resources the United States expends on "development" through its own programs and the international banks. He thought such a reorganization would help a now-muddled Congress to regain a vision of the responsibility of the United States in meeting the international obligations that cold self-interest compels it to acknowledge.

As usual on questions of aid, as on so much else, Sen. Humphrey was right on the money. Aid is in crisis. Americans have not made an adequate post-Vietnam transition to the concept that development assistance, far from being a cold-war tool or an expression of humanitarianism, is essential to the relations of the United States with a large number of nations increasingly important to it. Not only have the sums voted for development been niggardly; also, to the funds that are voted, Congress has gotten into the habit of attaching restrictive conditions - protection-nists swooping in from the right, human-rights activists from the left. The Humphrey approach, offering the possibility of a fresh start, could break that log-jam.

Such is the respect - not merely sentiment - for Mr. Humphrey's political command of development issues that his bill has gained substantial early Hill support, even from some of the quarters whose committee jurisdiction the measure would reduce. Hearings will open in March. It remains unclear, however, to what extent the administration will wish to use the bill, and the political steam building up behind it, to advance its own still-tentative plans to reorganize foreign aid in Washington and to focus it abroad further on the poorest nations and the poorest people. Reorganization, requiring bruising battles over turf, promises more political infighting than this administration may want to take on.

The result of a successful effort, however, would be a foreign-aid instrument measurably better suited to serve the President's own high-minded development ideals. That in turn would ease aid's path in Congress and leave the United States better able to play its natural and, in recent years, poorly filled leadership role in mustering support for global development. The practical advantages are so apparent that it is not even necessary - though it certainly is nice - to portray the new aid legislation as a memorial to Hubert Humphrey.