GOING BACK to the swearing-in of the original Piltdown congressman, this country's lawmakers have assembled an awesome and really quite imaginative record of avoiding, postponing or camouflaging difficult decisions. One of the clumsiest recent evasions is the way members of the House have handled a bill to make Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a legal holiday. After a decade of legislative lip service, Congress is still playing games with this proposal, which has become far more than a symbolic issue for many people.

With the stated but unlobbied support of the administration, the bill has come up twice in the House so far this year. The first time, about two weeks ago, the measure needed a two-thirds vote to pass under a special procedure -- and it fell just four votes short. But that simple majority had evaporated by this week -- when the bill was set to come up again under a majority-vote procedure. Instead, Rep. Robin Beard (R-Tenn.) offered the legislative escape hatch: an amendment to celebrate Dr. King's birthday on the third Sunday in January.

This, said Mr. Beard, would avoid an expensive closing down of the federal government for one day each year. Another amendment supporter, Rep. Gene Taylor (R-Mo.), chipped in: "We celebrate Easter on Sunday. How can you rise higher than that?" But others saw it as sinking to a new low: Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.), floor manager of the original bill, noted that the amendment would put Dr. King's day on a par with Stephen Foster day, Leif Ericsson day and a national peanut day -- in effect kissing it off. When the amendment to move the holiday to Sunday passed, 207 to 191, sponsors of the bill pulled it off the floor. They are now working to collect enough votes t pass their bill.

It can be argued that a genuine recognition of Dr. King and the contributions of black people to American life need not include a shutting down of the federal government. The birthday of another martyr, Abraham Lincoln, is observed without such a move. In the case of George Washington, the federal government is closed down, but not so the stores in this city. Anyway, some 14 states and the District of Columbia do observe Dr. King's birthday as some sort of official holiday.

Still, the sentiment for making Jan. 15 a full-fledged U.S. holiday does run deep. Passage of the King holiday bill would provide a formal national recognition of the goals for which Dr. King fought so bravely: humanity and justice for all people, non-violence as the means for achieving change, and compassion instead of hate for one's adversaries. At the very least, the 96th Congress should address the question head-on.