WITH ALL THAT makings of an Uncle-Sam-fouled-up-again story comes news that the federal government has sent fuel-assistance checks to thousands of people who don't have any heating bills to pay. It's true, and already you can hear hollow howls of indignation from some of those same Sun Belt members of Congress who insisted on wrapping their warmest constituents into the aid formula in the first place. In fact, a closer look at what happened and why reveals no great scandal at all; on the contrary, there is even reason to cheer the way the government got out the checks.

In the past, federal assistance to help the poor through cold winters was little and late. This year, for a change, there was a welcome sense of urgency in both the administration and Congress about getting fuel-assistance money out to the states before winter set in. To speed emergency payments, Congress allocated $386 million as direct grants to recipients of federal Supplemental Security Income -- aged, blind or disabled poor people. At the time the members were quite aware that some of the money would go to people who do not have to pay heating costs.

But that number of people is relatively small, and a majority of Congress defended the legislation on the ground that, despite this hitch, quick action was necessary. With rare dispatch, the administration then mailed out some four million checks. According to officials, it would have taken a good two months to comb through individual files to determine who in that number are not responsible for their heating bills. Estimates are not available.

In any case, the amounts of these one-time-only payments are not exactly staggering. Under the formula, Maryland residents were sent individual checks for $140; Virginia residents, $106; and District residents, $102. The ceiling on any payment is $250. So haste did make a little waste, but the alternative -- letting poor families freeze while the government gets its act together -- was far worse.