ON THE GRAND SCALE of the things, a basement full of fish living on the public dole is not your big-deal line-item in the budget for the whole United States. But the times, they are a-toughening, and in the eyes of those who oversee the National Aquarium in the Commerce building, it was fish or cut budget -- and the fish lost. By pulling the financial plug on the sad operation with the affectedly splendid name, your government can save the mighty sum of $280,000, even though it may mean pouring in another $1 million or more to convert this basement area into useful if less productive space. So what's it to us?

It's a long, tall story that goes back to the early 1960s. That was when Rep. Michael Kirwan (D-Ohio) decided it would be fine for this city to have a new $20 million aquarium. We disagreed with Mr. Kirwan and, as some readers may recall, also with our publisher, Philip L. Graham, who liked the idea. Congress and President Kennedy went along with a $10 million authorization; and, compliments of our publisher, we wound up with a small but symbolically large aquarium in our editorial office. But where would the big one go?

It took an advisory commission to come up with the singularly awful suggestion that the aquarium be built on the southermost tip of Hains Point, where it could be out of reach except by car or bus. This would have meant parking spaces that would have damaged the popular public golf course. To the rescue then came amateur golfer/professional cartoonist Herbert L. Block, who challenged Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall to a match on the course. The result of this grand and unserious occasion was the sparing of the course; and ever since, and plans for a big new aquarium have fizzled.

So today, at the rickety age of 108, the oldest established aquarium in the United States lies at the bottom of the Commerce building, about to go belly up as an absurd symbol of federal frugality -- unless Congress allows it to charge admission fees or accept cash donations. There is, we hasten to add, a (as opposed to "the") national aquarium that opened last summer in Baltimore. But that, of course, is another kettle.