By his own admission, Ted R. Kern is a straight-arrow husband and father and a top Internal Revenue Service official -- the last person you'd expect to find organizing the moral equivalent of a union.

But that's what he's doing.

After years of what he regards as taking it on the chin from politicians who think beating up on a bureaucrat is the best way to a voter's heart, Kern, 48, is "fed up," and he has found about 400 other ranking federal executives who feel the same way. The officials, all members of the government's Senior Executive Service (SES) and most earning more than $50,000 annually, have formed the Senior Executives Association.

They say they're furious, especially at Congress' election-year decision to cut back on bonuses it offered them to join the SES, and they're not going to take it any more.

"We don't have the right to bargain collectively but we can lobby Congress and issue press releases," said Kern, IRS district director for Maryland and Washington. "We can do more as a group than we can as individuals."

Kern also said the association has the right to take "appropriate legal action," beginning with a "breach of promise" suit filed this week against the federal government.

Some in the government see the association as yet another indication that the year-old SES, designed "to attract and retain highly competent senior executives," is in danger of falling on its face, something the association's members say they want to avoid.

"We want to save and improve SES. But quite frankly, many of our people feel cheated and lied to . . . . We gave up a lot of things to join SES, but Congress seems unwilling to live up to its end of the bargain," Kern said.

The "bargain" was struck in the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act that authorized the creation of SES. Basically, it said that:

Ranking federal executives -- GS16s through 18s in managerial and supervisory positions -- would give up their right to regular pay raises and to all veterans preference benefits.

They would accept job-related, geographic moves without challenge.

They would subject themselves to more rigorous performance reviews.

They would waive many due-process protections available to other federal workers, and would agree to dismissal or demotion after one year of "unsatisfactory service" or two years of "marginal service."

In return, they would become eligible for a series of bonuses and public honors for "outstanding performance" in any given year.

The bonuses would be of two types: regular bonuses of up to 20 percent (about $10,000) of base salaries; and one-shot, one-year "presidential rank awards," ranging from $10,000 for "meritorious" work to $20,000 for "distinguished" achievement.

It was the government's carrot-and-stick approach to increasing productivity at its highest levels. The problem, according to the angry executives, is that Congress decided to shrink the carrot.

For example, the Civil Service Reform law said that up to 50 percent of SES members in any agency could receive the regular bonuses in a year. But before leaving for its fall campaign season, Congress lowered that ceiling to 25 percent per agency. The Office of Personnel Management, which has jurisdiction over civil service employment, further lowered that figure to 20 percent.

The actions constituted a compromise. The House had tried to limit total compensation for SES members, including performance bonuses, to $52,750 annually. Had the House been successful, no federal executive in any agency would have been eligible for a bonus exceeding $2,637.50 -- the difference between the House-proposed ceiling and the salary ceiling of $50,112.50 now set for federal executives.

Congress claimed that its stinginess was warranted by the allegedly irresponsible manner in which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Small Business Administration (SBA) handed out bonuses last spring. NASA gave a total of $1.3 million in bonuses to 46 percent of its 520 SES members, and the SBA gave a total of $59,246 in bonuses to 28 percent of its 53 eligible employees.

Under the law, according to the General Accounting Office, NASA could have spent $2.4 million on bonuses and SBA could have spent $260,585.

"The problem is that we in the government live in a political environment," said Alan K. Campbell, OPM director. "Congress' action was part of a general response to inflation. . . .

"Most members of Congress come from districts where their constituents earn far less than $50,000. They are reluctant, in an election year, to try to explain to their constituents why high-level federal executives earning that much need bonuses."

Still, Campbell said he is sympathic to the complaints of the angry executives and that he supports their formation of a "professional association," although, he added, "I am disappointed that they seem to be emphasizing the benefits side in their organizing."

Campbell said he believes top government executives -- about 8,000 of them, nearly 7,000 of whom belong to SES -- are the victims of a double whammy, "pay compression and bonus cuts."

Two studies published last summer by the General Accounting Office support his contention.

One says that federal executive salaries have increased an average of 35 percent since October 1969, compared to increases of 84 percent for their subordinates and 125 percent for private sector executives over the same period. As a result of the sluggishness in executive service pay increases, about 90 percent of all SES members receive the maximum $50,112.50 salary, even though their service grades (one through six) and levels of responsibility vary.

"This is no way to run a railroad. . . . It hurts the morale of the people who are charged with implementing civil service reform," Campbell said.

Campbell and the association's organizers also say the pay and bonus problems -- especially when coupled with promotions that require geographic moves -- are forcing exerienced federal executives to leave government work early.

For example, one New York City federal executive who is representative of others interviewed by The Washington Post complains: "I've had three promotions in the last five years without a pay raise. Each promotion required a move. Each move personally cost me several thousand dollars. I can't afford another promotion like this. I'll leave the government if I get one."

In the first six months of 1979, about 180 federal executives chose early retirement, according to the GAO report on executive pay compression. The number of early retirements "rose drastically" to about 320 during the first quarter of this year, according to the report.

Kern said he hopes the executives organizing group will halt the "brain drain" and make SES more attractive by lobbying Congress to do what it said it would do when it gave its overwhelming approval to the "reform."

"They said it was voluntary, but for most of us it was either join SES or wind up deadended in our careers," Kern said. "We understood that, and most of us didn't mind. . . . But we think we've been treated shabbily since then, and we don't like it one bit."