JIMMY CARTER can wash his hands of the whole matter -- because he's still got hot water in his sink -- but the administration's latest small-think maneuver in the name of energy saving is all wet. As you may have read -- or felt, if you work for the government -- there's no hot water in the restrooms or janitors' closets in 175 federal office buildings around town. And that's an order, from the General Services Administration. It is also a silly way to harass about 130,000 people for no great reason, since the energy saved is a relative drop in the bucket.

Word from the GSA pipeline is that this cutoff will save $490,233 a year, which apparently includes 10,683 barrels of No. 6 fuel oil used to heat boilers. That sounds impressive, even if it does come from one of the agencies that contributed generously to -- would you believe -- $9.3 billion spent by the government last year on contracts. But as one Commerce Department employee cracked, "If the faucets were checked once a month and the leaks fixed, that would save just as much." For that matter, why not close all the restrooms, turn off all the elevators and serve only cold food in all government installations?

It's great sport to make jokes at the expense of "all those federal workers in Washington," and we, too, have been known to take a few shots in their direction from time to time. But for those who have had their salaries frozen, their offices parboiled and their free parking blown away, the hot-water game is harsh if not unsanitary. Besides, you know all too well who suffers and who doesn't when this sort of policy is sanctimoniously put into effect: VIP's -- those who had showers in their offices, which many do, according to Federal Diary columnist Mike Causey -- are exempt. Any joggers, bikers or other overheated employees who can find a shower will find hot water, too.

It just so happens that federal workers outside of Washington still have hot water all around, which does not tend to feed an impression that this is all a cheap joke at the expense of those with the least ability to battle back. They deserve to be in the same hot water as their superiors, even if it takes a special order from the top to get those taps flowing again.