WHEN YOU HAVE done something outstanding, it's nice to get a letter of congratulations from your congressman. It shows he cares. And many House members care so much about keeping in touch that their staffs comb the down-home newspapers and send off friendly notes -- at taxpayers' expense -- to everyone who has had a golden anniversary, been elected club president, won a scholarship or done anything else that's noteworthy. That's in addition to the form letters to high-school graduates, naturalized citizens and people who just registered to vote. And in addition to the "baby books" for parents of newborn babies. And in addition to notes of condolence to those who are bereaved.

As an abuse of the franking privilege, this is nowhere near the top. It's all fairly innocuous -- but also gratuitous and expensive to boot. So it seemed heartening when the House last week took up some franking rules that would restrict the congratulations business to notes about "public" distinctions. At least that seemed restrictive at first. Then Rep. Sam Stratton (D-N.Y.) started asking Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) for clarifications -- and the limits began to fade.

What is a "public" distinction, as opposed to a "personal" one? It includes being elected to office -- and that includes a private office if it's in the public eye. But that's not all; nearly anything that gets into the newspapers is "public" -- from being chosen as "apple queen" to breaking a college record for the 100-yard dash. Graduating from high school is "public." As for mailing "baby books," well, those are public publications, so franking them is all right too.

Would nothing be banned? Not quite. Condolence letters are out. That is, unless they also offer to help the grieving relatives get survivors' benefits and so on; those are "representational" letters and therefore may be franked. But Rep. udall was firm about one thing: If members want to congratulate constituents on "reaching the age of 100" or being married for half a century, the letter should carry a stamp.

So that's that.

Guess who pays for the stamps.