IT'S TOO BAD THAT the spectacular state dinner at the White House Monday night was marred by an unwise decision about how to pay the bills. By asking corporations to underwrite much of the affair, Mr. Carter's staff and friends somewhat clouded a day of international celebration and created the impression that seats at the banquet tables were for sale.

We doubt that the White House set out to peddle political favors or cash in on corporate desires to cultivate presidential good will. Instead, the white house staff apparently ran into a problem that every host or hostess hits: how to pay for the party of the year. Official budgets for events of state might well have stretched to cover the banquet for three heads of state and 1,300 guests; the case could surely have been made. But this administration is more touchy than most about any hint of White House extravagance; and while it was eager to put on the affair, it was reluctant to ask the taxpayers to pick up the tab.

Several White House aides have argued that tapping corporate coffers both saved public funds and enabled more people to share in celebrating peace. Curiously, however, the White House declined various unsolicited offers of aid. Apparently the solicitors preferred to deal with their own list of business leader who are used to responding to charitable appeals and understand the blend of public-spiritedness, public relations and politics involved.

Still, no matter how apolitical the whole affair amy have been, the maxim that there is no such thing as a free dinner still applies. We wouldn't carp about the donations of flowers, tablecloths and such that White House social offices are continually scrounging for. But its troubling to see the administration relying on trade-seeking businesses to underwrite the Kennedy Center gala for the Chinese vice premier, and even more worrisome to have corporations asked to pay for Monday's affair. Those are national events that the nation should be willing to support. The Carter administration could help clear the air by asking for straightforward budgets for official entertaining, instead of trying to economize in ways that wind up looking suspect, hypocritical or cheap.