CONGRESS HAS another chance today to do right by top federal officials. Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the civil service subcommittee, will be urging the Senate to raise the cap on federal executive salaries as part of the spending bill Congress must complete today to keep federal funds flowing.

We have heard from all sides that the problem of pay compression at the top levels of civilian and military pay is causing a massive loss of scarce talent. Pentagon officials are especially alarmed at the loss of technical and administrative personnel to high-paying defense contractors. Early retirements among federal executives in all agencies have reached such alarming proportions--over 95 percent of those newly eligible to retire are now doing so, compared with only 17 percent five years ago--that the General Accounting Office recently estimated that lifting the pay cap could actually save the government money because of reduced pension costs.

While other factors may contribute to this exodus, the pay cap must be a major contributor. Federal executives now earn only 5.5 percent more than they did five years ago. Over the same period, private-sector executive salaries rose 40 percent and cost-of-living adjustments pushed up federal pensions by 55 percent. For those who have stayed behind, the cap has caused severe management and morale problems. Pay increases at lower grade levels have forced more and more workers up against the pay ceiling. At the moment there is nothing beyond self-esteem to motivate workers to accept the added duties and pressures associated with a promotion within the top five civil service levels.

The Stevens amendment would not remove the pay cap entirely. It would, however, improve the competitiveness of top federal salaries somewhat and restore some incentive for promotion at the top grade levels. For several years now, Congress has held federal officials hostage to its own reluctance either to take the heat for raising congressional pay --to which federal pay is now tied--or allow federal executives to earn more than congressmen. Whatever the merits of a congressional pay raise--and there are many separate factors involved in that matter-- it is time for Congress to release its federal hostages.