WHEN EMPLOYEES of the Federal Trade Commission reach their offices this morning, they will be directed to secure their files and prepare to shut the commission down. That's because the commission is out of money and, under a new ruling from the attorney general, can do nothing except take the steps essential to closing its doors.

This is mad. No one in the FTC, the administration or Congress expects or even wants to close the FTC permanently -- at least so far as we can tell. It is expected to be back at the old stand by sometime next week. But a group of congressmen have been playing chicken with the agency's future and never mind the civil servants who work there or the consumers the commission protects.

The game has been going on for months between those who want to gut the commission of its power and those who want to leave it reasonably intact. It came to a head after the House Appropriations Committee refused to provide any more interim funds for the commission until work on an authorization bill was completed. The conferees did finally reach an agreement yesterday afternoon, but not in time to get the money flowing again before midnight.

While the terms of the agreement should satisfy most of the FTC's opponents -- they restrict its operations far too much, in our view -- it is not clear that the game is finished. There was talk on the Hill yesterday of leaving the FTC (and its staff and its work) without money until the authorization bill is passed by both houses and signed by the president. Since the bill contains a two-house veto, its signing will not be automatic, although President Carter is expected to accept it reluctantly.

What a way to legislate.