IN EACH NEW administration the Peace Corps is put up for grabs and, as annoying as that is for some of those most intimately involved, it is exactly as it should be. The whole idea of the Peace Corps - as a special expression of voluntarism and a unique American presence overseas - fits awkwardly within the context of the line service bureaucracies, and it would be unnatural if different administrations representing different ideologies did not try to read - just the fit. So it was that President Kennedy, showing his innovative, energetic side, adopted and launched the idea. President Nixon, lacking the Kennedy commitment to a Kennedy creation, folded the Peace Corps tightly into a new agency, ACTION, designed to house the federal government's domestic as well as foreign volunteer programs. Now it is President Carter's turn.

In fact, Congress has thrust the question upon him. Broadly speaking, one group of legislators, unenamored of the volunteer concept, has been critical of the way ACTION has been run and of the political style of its director, Sam Brown. Another group, essentially protective of the Peace Corps, has felt that it was faring poorly within ACTION. The two streams more or less converged in the recent House vote to remove the Peace Corps from ACTION and give it as much autonomy as would be possible - which is probably not enough - in the yet-to-be-created International Development Cooperation Agency. This agency is to be the new and supposedly improved home of foreign aid.

Do your eyes cross as you try to visualize the boxes? Don't worry: Jimmy Carter has found a pretty good solution. As befits the son of a former Peace Corps volunteer, he values the agency as an expression of a battered but enduring part of the American spirit - and one that can be put to good, if modest use in many developing countries. He has sought a way for the Peace Corps to have the relative independence it needs to 1) survive politically, 2) operate efficiently and 3) preserve the visibility essential to recruitment and effectiveness - autonomy within ACTION.Since ACTION without the Peace Corps would likely blow away, ACTION does not, needless to say, want to let the Peace Corps go.

Among people who think and care about development, there is a continuing argument about whether development occurs as a result of pouring capital and technology from the top down or allowing human-scale energy and initiative to seep from the bottom up. It is the latter idea that animates the Peace Corps. This agency, which engages only in the transfer of people, not of capital or technology, could do it no other way. When you look at it this way, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Peace Corps is a rare bird that deserves and needs a special kind of open cage. That's what autonomy within the volunteer agency would amount to.