As we come into the homestretch for an election that's expected to be especially harsh on incumbents, gratitude is owed Interior Secretary Cecil D. Andrus for bringing Washington's "has-been" problem out of the shadows of social protocol. The capital city has "too many has-beens on the social circuit," Andrus recently told the Associated Press, and for that reason, among others, he's leaving, regardless of who wins.

"Has-been" control used to be bound by strict standards, if only out of necessity, given the prodigious clip at which they're produced in Washington, even in politically tranquil times. In recent years, however, the capital's has-been population has burgeoned as a result of the growing tendency among ex-officeholders, elective and appointive, to stay on, even after their horses have been shot out from under them.

Sheer numbers thus add up to a serious problem for maintaininng reasonable standards of social management. But the difficulties have been worsened by the Carter White House, whose non-populist, party-pooping standards have destablized the official social scene. This has created a disoriented class of courtiers without a court and, in the ensuing confusion, time-tested protocols of status and hierarchy have been trampled. Many undesirable consequences have followed, including, as Andrus suggests, virtual open-admissions on the social circuit. For the cadres of name droppers, celebrity sniffers and power trippers that infest the capital, the diminution of standards has plunged the social scene into chaos.

The first rule for restoring sensible management to the increasingly troublesome has-been problem is that upon loss of office, invitations stop. This sounds cruel and, in fact, it is heartless, since many recipients eventually slip into the delusion that the requests for their company reflect their personal likability, rather than an interest in the positions they occupy. Cold turkey, in the psychological rather than the buffet context, is the only humane treatment.

The reason is that, given the calumnies and indignities that must be borne in gaining and holding office, the winners -- as inspiration and reward for winning -- deserve something that's denied the losers and the non-participants. To make it successfully across the electoral battlefield only to find yourself blocked from the shrimp platter by losers and dropouts is not how the system is supposed to work.

A certain sentimental softness being prevalent in our time, some misguided inviters, feeling squeamish about an abrupt cutoff, attempt a gradual disengagement from official social relationships. However, these attempts at charity, usually marked by the transparent pretense that nothing has really changed, actually undermine the social system. Admittedly, the mores of the circuit do require the cast of characters to behave as though personal affinity, rather than the strict fact of officeholding, is the underpinning of their relationship. But if this were so -- which, of course, it isn't -- has-beenism would be no problem, and those who honor traditional standards would not be in a quandary over the protocol ratings of those hordes of ex-officeholders and former deputy assistants and assistant deputies and ex-associate administrators and so on down the line.

Though there are few matters on which emulation of Soviet practice can be recommended, it is instructive to note that rarely, if ever, does one hear of has-beens on the Moscow social circuit. "In" and "out" appear to be clearly defined there, and ghosts of erstwhile glory do not clutter the scene.

For Washington to achieve a restoration of standards, long overdue as it may be, does not require a blunderbuss approach to has-been control. On the contrary, the problem, which appears to be growing at a quick pace, calls for sensitive treatment. Counseling, perhaps groups sessions, to help wean the fallen from their customary social routes would seem to be in order. In addition, alternative social circuits could be established, if only on a temporary basis, to aid in the reentry process.

There is every reason to believe that with energy and good will, order can be restored to the social circuit.