TCONGRESS AND the administration are once

again playing "chicken" over the food stamp program. Both sides must enjoy the game, since either could decline to play. It may be that both have chosen to participate on at least an annual basis in recent years because the real potential losers are the poor--and they can only watch from the sidelines.

The routine goes roughly as follows. Each year Congress, under pressure from the president to cut food stamp spending, appropriates an amount of money it knows is substantially short of the actual need. Sometime during the next spring or summer --big surprise--the program starts to run out of money. Congress and the administration then haggle over the terms of a supplemental appropriation, each waiting for the other to yield on some extraneous issue often far removed from the immediate need for more money. Meanwhile, the needy people who depend on food stamps for their meals are left worrying whether the legislators will come through before the money is cut off.

This year it looked as if the annual confrontation would be avoided. The president requested the extra money in January, and the supplemental appropriation passed both houses by June. Since the program won't run out of money until August, the appropriations committees saw no need to expedite action, and Congress recessed for the Fourth of July before a conference was held. What the committee members didn't know until just before the recess was that the Agriculture Department felt obliged to send a letter to states telling them to prepare to cut food stamp benefits sharply next month because of the impending shortfall, and warning of severe penalties if they failed to do so.

This has put the states in a bind. Although it is likely that the needed money will be forthcoming-- and the Agriculture Department has agreed to delay sending a final notice ordering the cut until the conference has met next week--the states can't be sure. After all, the supplemental appropriation includes many other items that displease the president, and a veto is possible. Since states need time to reprogram computers, some of them may delay preparing to issue August benefits until the matter is resolved.

A delay of even a few days is no small matter for millions of poor families and elderly and disabled people. Many recipients already go hungry at the end of each month because food stamps typically cover only a part of grocery costs. Well-fed Washington bigwigs may not know it, but three or four additional days can seem like a very long time when you are hungry. Congress and the administration must clearly do everything necessary to get the supplemental money to states in time. If that means accepting compromises on other matters, it is simply the price they have to pay for their penchant for playing childish games at the expense of vulnerable people.