The pay raises Congress voted yesterday for 53,000 of the government's top executives will amount to as little as $161 a year for some and as much as $7,388 for others, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

The smallest raises will go to the least senior of those affected, the largest to those at higher levels. The increases will all take effect Jan. 1, when the cap of $50,112 on executive pay will be lifted to $57,500.

For some senior bureaucrats, the fatter January paychecks will be the first raise of any kind since February, 1977, with the exception of a single 5.5 percent increase in 1979.

"We're ebullient," said Sam Phillips, vice president of the Senior Executive Association, a professional group of top government managers. "For the first time in a while we can look senior executives in the eye and tell them that they should stay in government," he added.

Raise proponents had argued the pay cap was creating severe morale problems in the upper reaches of government, leading to a brain drain, and was producing intolerable "pay compression," where subordinates and superiors are all paid the same.

He said there were instances of six different layers of managers in a single government department all receiving the same $50,112 salary. He also said that, as a result of the artificially low wages, some 90 percent of senior government executives now retire in their first year of eligibility, up from 15 percent in the mid 1970s.

Roughly one-quarter of the executives whose salary is currently frozen at $50,112 will get the full increase to $57,500, a 14.7 percent rise, according to the OPM. These are all those at GS15 step 8 and above. The remainder will receive smaller increases, depending on their GS rank and longevity. A few hundred presidential appointees will have caps above $57,500.

The total pay increase is expected to cost the government $165 million this year, according to the OPM, meaning an average salary increase of slightly over $3,000 for the affected employes.

Caps are enacted by Congress every year in order to keep executive branch salaries from rising to their "paper" levels, which at the upper end of the GS scale float all the way up to $75,177, considerably more than Cabinet members or congressmen make.

The current pay cap has been in existence since February, 1977, longer than any in history. Because of its duration, it has led to more salaries being frozen than ever before, reaching all the way down to GS14 step 9. Someone at that level currently should be making $50,273 on paper, so as of Jan. 1, his salary will increase by only $161.

Federal government employes who currently receive less than $50,112 will be unaffected by the changes. They will continue to receive annual "comparability adjustments," in addition to their rank and longevity raises.

The lifting of the cap will affect 29,600 employes in the General Schedule, another 6,500 in the Senior Executive Service and some 500 presidential appointees. It will also affect executives in the Foreign Service, some in the Veterans' Administration and top congressional staff members, all of whose salaries are tied to the Civil Service System.

Some examples of the increases:

In the GS system, a GS15 step 4 will go to $51,353; a GS15 step 5 will go to $52,909; a GS16 step 1 will go to $54,755.

In the Senior Executive Service, which was created three years ago as an elite corps of government managers, an ES1 will be upped to $54,755 and an ES6 will go to $58,500. The bulk of the SES executives are ES3,4 or 5s, whose new ceilings remain to be fixed by presidential order.

Among presidential appointees, the ceiling for Level I, which includes Cabinet secretaries, remains unchanged at $69,630. The ceiling for Level II, which has served as the mark for the salaries of congressmen, deputy secretaries and heads of large agencies, remains fixed at $60,662.

The 72 commissioners and undersecretaries in Level III will have their caps raised from $55,387 to $59,500. The 239 assistant secretaries and inspector generals in Level IV will go from $52,750 to $58,500. The 47 general counsels, commissioners and deputy assistants in Level V will go from $50,112 to $57,500.