IN CASE YOU WERE wondering in just what city any courageous spirit of federal thrift might be immediately manifest, you are already there -- in the District of Columbia, where Congress loves to put on politically risk-free demonstrations of almost any get-tough lawmaking it wants to. For the voters back home -- since there aren't any living here who matter to Congress -- Exhibit "A" from the House Budget Committee turns out to be a hefty cut of some $61 million in the federal payment for the next fiscal year.

Sure, it plays hell with the city's already debt-riddled finances, but it will play well anywhere else, where the special nature of the annual federal payment to the District is neither understood nor the least bit interesting. Compound that blow with the elimination of $9 million in revenue-sharing money for the District, and presto -- the capital city is once again a "model for the nation" to admire but not emulate.

There is a distinction here that bears constant repeating, even if it still falls on deaf ears. The annual federal payment to the District is not some dippy grant program dreamed up in richer days by softy-libs to remedy certain urban maladies or socioeconomic ills. In fact, it shouldn't even be called a "payment" because it is more accurately compensation for special services rendered to the federal government, including the tax-free use of an enormous amount of land. Granted, there should be a better formula for calculating the tab -- which is what a string of presidents, including Mr. Carter, have been proposing. But to cut next fiscal year's amount to $61 million below what Congress authorized as proper for the District when it approved a charter seven years ago is cruel and unusual.

If a fair federal payment means that the District also must swallow the costs of certain host services for mass demonstrations or for visits of dignitaries, such as the visit last year of Pope John Paul II, there is all the more justification for a better shake from Congress. To make this case is not to argue for a special exemption from necessary belt-tightening; the city government, too, will have to cope with austerity in demonstrable ways. But in ignoring the principles involved in the federal payment and dealing a devastating blow to this city's finances, the Budget Committee has acted most irresponsibly.