THE BANKERS' lobby scored a significant victory -- judged by whatever peculiar standards guide its own calculation of self-interest--by delaying further progress on the emergency relief and jobs bill. It hopes to get the Senate to tack on an amendment repealing tax withholding on interest and dividends. The president has said he will veto the bill if the amendment is included, and this might cause unemployment benefits to be cut off temporarily in 27 states.

The plight of the unemployed may not be of major concern to the bankers. But you might have expected that many of the Democrats who helped to derail the jobs measure would have given swift passage of job relief clear priority over the dubious claims of the bankers. The Democrats will assure you that their action had nothing to do with trying to embarrass the president by making him veto a jobs bill. No, they, like the Republicans who joined them, are simply responding to the outpouring of "grass-roots" concern over the withholding rule.

The senators, it seems, are pretty naive. They are apparently unable to distinguish between a thoughtful letter of concern written by a constituent with full understanding of the facts and the barrage of form letters preprinted (and frequently mailed) by the banks. Perhaps they have neglected to study the type of misinformation that the banks used to get their customers to sign the forms. "Congress wants a piece of your savings," reads one representative sample.

They should ask themselves what sort of reaction they would have gotten if the banks had sent out a more accurate notice. One, perhaps, that assured the customer--truthfully--that no new tax was involved, only an effort to help the government collect its taxes efficiently. The notice might also have observed that, in most cases, the banks already had all the necessary information from the forms they now file with the IRS, and that withholding would save billions of dollars for the government and, hence, for the honest taxpayer.

Other fair points should have been that depositors with relatively large accounts would suffer no loss of interest because they must already file taxes quarterly, and that for small depositors the compound interest loss from withholding--if any--would be much smaller than the banks' typical service charge. Finally, the banks might have assured the elderly and people with low incomes that they would be glad to help them fill out the simple exemption forms.

Unfortunately, the banks sent out quite a different kind of letter. Rather than helping the government and the public by preparing for withholding, they invested their time and money in trying to prevent it from happening. If the president is forced to veto the jobs bill-- or any other important measure--over the withholding issue, it is not he but the banks and their Senate supporters who will, deservedly, bear the blame.