IT SURELY PLAYED WELL wherever people rant about or revel in the stereotype of every federal employee as a high-priced, coddled and cushioned, do-nothing bureaucrat. But to the victims of yesterday's furlough orders, the situation was as funny as a U.S. Grade-A lockout. And if any chuckling taxpayers out there believe that this exercise saved great coin for the Treasury, they might count those beads on the abacus one more time: in Washington, when all is said and done it's on paper, and the mere processing of every furlough file from start to finish should add up to a mean tab in itself.

The sudden threat of docking the pay of thousands of people for what at first was seen as an indefinite duration is a cruel game--hardest, to be sure, on people at the bottom whose hourly wages need all the hours they can get to meet ends in this expensive town. Did personal hardship matter yesterday? Who drew the lines in each office that separated the employed from the ushered-out-by-noon herd? And who, during this administrative mayhem, could provide any answers for the victims?

Certainly not the White House "Comment Line" that is supposed to accept the telephoned opinions of people on the issues of the day. Those who got by the busy signal got the terse word from a less-than- essential, quintessential recorded voice:

"In the absence of appropriations, the White House is involved in an orderly phase-down. All non-essential personnel have been furloughed. No one is here to answer your call."

If this was the administration's idea of an "orderly phase-down," the first sudden snowstorm of the season here should be a lulu.