AFTER YEARS of general hand-wringing about the civil service system, some fairly major reforms were enacted in 1978.For top-level federal managers, the new Senior Executive Service offered the chance of large pay bonuses in return for outstanding effort and an increased risk of penalties for inadequate work. The new rules for these 7,000 or so senior career officials have been getting arranged for nearly two years now, and the first decisions on who deserves a bonus are just being made. Enter the House of Representatives, which threatens to undo the whole system by eliminating almost all of the bonus money.

This is a truly stupid thing to do. Senior career executives are working right now for considerably less money than their colleagues in the private sector, and one purpose of the bonus provision was to provide the genuinely exceptional among them a reason to stick with the government. For years, federal salaries have been artificially restrained by a congressionally imposed ceiling, which now stands at $50,112. Eighty-six percent of the senior executives are at that ceiling. Some 80 percent would, if paid at the level their jobs draw in private industry, earn more than the $52,750 the House has set as its limit on the combination of pay and bonus.

This issue is an easy prey for demagogues, because not many people in the country make $50,000. But it should be remembered that the size of some of these jobs is staggering. We are talking about some of the most responsible executives in the country.

In addition to keeping some of the best people from leaving, the penalty-and-reward structure of the reform was also intended to encourage those who had not been working very hard or very effectively to get with it. Actions like those of the House committee are likely to incline them, instead, only to dig in their heels.

There is, inevitably, a tension in government between the political people -- legislative and executive -- and the career civil servants. Success in running the government requires taking positive advantage of that tension, with career staff providing the analytic work, the institutional background and continuing management capacity, and the political officials providing the judgement of how to get things done and which things to try to do. The senior career executives are the bridge between the political staff and the vast operational apparatus. They have seen administrations come and go, and are like the legendary British civil servants who, it is said, serve all political masters with equal loyalty and disdain. It makes no sense to tip the balance further toward disdain and cynicism by reneging on an agreed-upon change in the terms of employment after they have given up their security and before they have had a chance to reap any benefit. The funds should be restored.