TRY AS THEY DID so furiously to spurce up their salaries in time for the holidays -- and beyond -- members of Congress had to head home without the pay raise they had hoped to carry off in the conveniently madhouse dying hours of the Old 96th. Thanks to a tough stand by enough senators with the sense to realize that this isn't any way to run a railroad, the devious attempt to jack up members' salaries by more than $10,000 apiece -- to a total of $70,900 -- will now have to await the more orderly consideration it is supposed to receive in the first place.

Even before that, the whole complicated federal pay structure needs revisions. It is unfair to many, disproportionately generous to others and deceptive to the untrained taxpayer eye. Take, for example, the way people in the top federal-executive categories have been squeezed because their pay increases are conditional on raises for members of Congress. Not only have the salaries of these senior officials been artificially restrained over the years, but the freeze has continued to push more and more federal employees up against the pay ceiling and toward a government of too many chiefs.

The result is an inglorious hodgepodge of excessive and regressive salaries, in which longtime top managers wind up making the same as or less than subordinates when everything including retirement is toted up. That, as any veteran administrator, president or even president-elect can tell you, doesn't make public service all that attractive to expert talent. Not only should the ceiling be reasonably lifted, but these salaries should be separated from congressional pay, pensions and perks of the trade.

Then there is the unfairness of the single national rate Uncle Sam pays employees no matter where they live. When the same job pays, say, $10,000 a year whether it's in Washington or Mississippi, there's an inequity. And just as the math used in cost-of-living adjustments for pensions and Social Security benefits may be boosting payments too quickly, the total financial package for each federal employee should be considered when making any dubious "comparability" calculaitons against whatever it is that an alleged counterpart in private business is taking home.

The place to start is with the recommendations issued yesterday by the Commission on Executive, Legislative and Judicial Salaries. This task force, which meets by law every four years, has proposed substantial raises, some in excess of $20,000 a year, for top officials, many of whom have had no increases in four years. President Carter is free to accept or adjust these figures in his final budget next month, and they could stand some whittling. Then it will be up to Congress. If the members are a little more shy about helping themselves at that point, so be it; they can help a lot of other public servants and taxpayers by ironing out the inequities in the rest of the federal pay structure.