TRUE TO BUREAUCRATIC form, no one in charge of much of anything at the great big U.S. Department of Agriculture had ever gone to the window and looked out back over the South 40 -- where a marvelous bumper crop of usable office equipment was being harvested daily by department hands and local trashmen. For at least four years, hundreds of dollars worth of spiffy-looking desks, typewriters, file cabinets and other furniture have been chucked into a Dempster Dumpster each day; and what employees haven't carted off, the trash trucks have -- for burial in the District dump at Lorton.

So what was the initial middle-level response to inquiries about all this high-class trash? Straight from the Handbook of USDA Red Tape came the replies: "If there's something good that's getting into the dumpster, I don't know where it's coming from," said a branch chief who must not have noticed that employees, too, had been getting into it regularly for fun and prizes. Besides, said he and every other supervisory person asked about it, whatever has been happening is under the jurisdiction of another agency, bureau, branch, office or private carrier. And besides, the proper regulations against this sort of thing had been issued and that should be that.

Further digging by a reporter turned up reports of many more fine artifacts buried by other government offices -- Interior, HUD, the Quartermaster Corps and others. At Agriculture, at least the matter now has reached Cabinet level, with an order from Secretary Bob Bergland for an investigation. So whose desk will this order cross? More specifically, will that deak still be there -- or did it go with Wednesday morning's load? Perhaps it will turn out to be nothing all that extraordinary -- just another parity program in which employees are paid not to use their office furniture, or a way to eliminate the man behind the desk by eliminating the desk first. Were it a question of replacing the old government green with snappy office decor, taxpayers might begin to understand, but there's little evidence of fanciness in most federal offices. The least that should be accomplished by the investigation is that someone identify the presumably nameless but perhaps not faceless officials who let this waste go on.