HAVING BEEN too stingy in the 1960s, the workers' compensation system in Washington suddenly got excessively generous in the 1970s. The federal Department of Labor handles the disability claims of District of Columbia workers, and it handles them under, oddly, the federal law for long-shoremen.The city council will decide today whether to consider a bill to put workers' compensation under the District government and to bring it under standards closer to those that most states have adopted.

In supporting this bill, we remind readers that this newspaper, as one of the city's largest employers, has a direct and substantial financial stake in it.But the very rapid escalation of workers' compensation costs is affecting many other interests as well -- not all of them private. The bill would reduce the premiums that employers pay for workers' compensation insurance. One vigorous advocate of this bill, the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade, says that the total premiums paid by all employers in the city rose from $15 million in 1972 to $120 million last year. There was another 22 percent rate increase in December.

The sponsor of the bill, council member Willie J. Hardy, argues that the rapid rise in compensation insurance costs has become a serious burden to small businesses in the city. Among the employers complaining of the cost is Metro, which has been confronted with an epidemic of claims by bus drivers. i

Under the Longshoremen's Act, the maximum benefit in the District is now $426 a week. One state, Alaska, has a maximum of $650, but the next highest is Illinois, at $353. Maryland maximum is $241, and Virginia's is $199. The Hardy bill would reduce the maximum benefit in the District to $397 a week unless inflation raised the city's average weekly wage higher; then that average weeekly wage would be the maximum. Here an amendment is desirable. Since most dangerous jobs in construction and manufacturing here draw wages well above the average, the council might consider following Illinois' example and putting the maximum benefit one-third higher than the average wage. But the maximum is only part of the issue. The Hardy bill would also end a variety of legal anomalies that, under the Labor Department's administration, have pushed benefits here far higher than the national pattern.

Balancing the claims of workers against the interests of employers and of the city's economy is a matter of political judgment. The Hardy bill would give the basic responsibility for the system of the mayor. There would be an appeal to the city's courts and a further appeal, you might say, to the voters. Under the home rule principle, that's where the responsibility belongs.