IT'S NOT CLEAR why the House decamped for a 10-day "district work period" Friday, leaving much of the government technically out of money until at least Oct. 9. Perhaps the House leadership was tired, after losing and having to recoup four major measures within two weeks. Perhaps a lot of representatives wanted to go see the pope. Or perhaps House members were hoping to force the Senate to give in on two difficult issues, abortion funding and the top-level pay raise, which has gotten tied to the interim spending-authority bill. If that was their aim, it backfired; instead of yielding, the Senate angrily killed the whole bill.

So the government is starting fiscal 1980 in an awkward position. By the time the House ambles back next week, some agencies' lack of spending authority will be starting to hurt payrolls and programs. The pay-raise situation is even more snarled. Last week both House and Senate voted to grant federal judges and top-level federal employees a 5.5 percent increase. But when the House took off, the Senate had not agreed to raise congressional pay. On Monday, therefore, all three groups-- executives, judges and members of Congress-- became entitled to a 12.9 percent increase automatically. After the House has collected itself again, the congressional and executive-branch increases may well be rolled back. But the judges can bank on the larger sum because the Constitution bars reducing judicial salaries, whether or not they have been increased by default.

None of this is really disastrous. But it is enough of a mess to make one wonder about the House's priorities. What business elsewhere was so urgent that it could not be postponed? For that matter, why was another "district work period" even scheduled, right at the end of the fiscal year-- and just 23 days after the House came back from its August recess?

Perhaps the pay-raise debacle will be embarrassing enough to make the House defer any more vacations until it has finished its work here. If sterner sanctions are required, Congress might take a page from the state constitution of California. It holds that when judges fail to rule on cases promptly, their pay gets docked. Reportedly, that provision has a remarkably bracing effect. If it were applied to Congress, the House would not be getting a bigger pay raise in absentia; it would be on leave without pay.