Among the many federal agencies anxiously awaiting the outcome of the latest fight over a supplemental appropriations bill is the National Transportation Safety Board, which just finished investigating the January Air Florida crash here and is hard at work on the recent disaster in New Orleans.

It's hard to do without money. Chairman James Burnett told two House Science and Technology subcommittees this week that the board's public hearing on the New Orleans crash, scheduled to begin Sept. 14, will be conducted at the expense of paychecks for board employes unless the supplemental is approved. Many board employes have already received furlough notices, although none has actually been furloughed.

Both the House and the Senate versions have $580,000 for the board. In addition, the Senate has provided $1 million specifically for crash investigations -- money that could be carried over to next year if not used. There is no such money in the House version. The board, of course, cannot budget based on a predictable crash rate; U.S. aviation went a record 26 months without a major accident, but there have been three since January of this year.

In the past year, the board's staff has been reduced from 374 to 292 to meet budget cuts. The board is required by statute to investigate all aviation accidents, so the personnel cuts have come in areas where the board has discretion: highways, railroads and pipelines. A total of 234 people have died in the Washington, Boston and New Orleans plane crashes this year. Last year, highway fatalities totaled 49,125.