The question, itself, was legitimate; only the identity of the questioner should have been any surprise: "Now by what sense do we have a regulation in government that says we'll pay $6,000 a month to keep someone in a hospital (who) we believe would be better off at home but (whose) family cannot afford one-sixth of that amount to keep them at home?"

The "someone" in this vignette about official government unintelligence is little Katie Beckett of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who has spent most of her 31/2 years in hospitals being treated for the effects of viral encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. The questioner was not, as one might have imagined, some early-bird challenger to the incumbent president, whose allegedly foolish policies were being exposed and ridiculed. No, the questioner was himself the incumbent president of the United States, Ronald Reagan. And the forum in which the question was posed was the most recent presidential press conference.

More than any other modern American politician, Ronald Reagan has employed the graphic anecdote as a devastating campaign weapon. A listener could almost see the notorious Welfare Queen in her designer jeans and Mercedes Benz as candidate Reagan described her collecting nearly as much in AFDC payments as Mobil was willing to pay for Marathon Oil. During the campaign, he told us more than once about the blizzard of printed federal regulataions that, if laid together, would blanket the District of Columbia from border to border to a depth of 4 feet 6 inches. The anecdotes were basic to the challenger's basic speech, and the challenger won.

But now he is the president, an office he has held for more than 10 months. The federal government is no longer simply some alien force to be taunted and thwacked before partisan crowds. Ronald Reagan no longer has the luxury or the liberty of being the critic and the outsider; he is now our principal public employee and, as such, responsible for governmental policies and the people who make them.

Take the case of Katie Beckett. As long as Katie, not yet 4 years old, is technically "living apart"--i.e. in the hospital--from her parents, she meets the minimum income requirement necessary to qualify for Medicaid assistance. But when she returns home and her parents' income is counted, then Katie is no longer eligible for help. Rep. Thomas Tauke (R-Iowa) spoke about the Becketts' plight to Vice President George Bush, who chairs the presidential task force on regulatory reform. Apparently, the president learned about the regulation and the hardship it worked from Bush.

Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker, in whose department the regulation was enforced, learned about the rule and the president's outrage, like the rest of us, at the presidential press conference. Secretary Schweiker, in short order, granted a waiver to Katie's family so that she could return home without losing her Medicaid assistance.

But what of the other Katies? Tauke and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) have introduced a bill to extend the exemption to all such children under the age of 18 whose state agencies determine that home care would be less expensive than hospital care. As of this writing, Ronald Reagan and his administration have not determined whether they will support or oppose the Tauke-Waxman bill. If the administration chooses not to, then never again will any official of the administration be able to criticize that particular example of Washington bungling.

Maybe it's now time to announce: Mr. Reagan, you won. You now head the government. Your people are now responsible for regulations. And if you don't like them, then you can lend your considerable stature and influence to the legislative effort to change them. But you can no longer spend your press conferences regaling us with horror stories from the Twilight Zone of the health and human services department. Until at least Jan. 20, 1985, that and all the other departments are under your aegis and control. The federal government is no longer something to run against--it's something to be run.