Rep. Mel Levine (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) are introducing a bill to outlaw private funding of the Nicaraguan "contras" -- and not a minute too soon.

The College Republican National Committee has just announced a drive on campuses to get students to fork over 53 cents a day to "save the contras." It comes as hundreds of college students are lobbying on Capitol Hill to save their student loans.

The college Republicans have issued a poster, modeled after the "Save the Children" ad campaign. It shows a bare-chested warrior, wearing a crucifix and brandishing an M16 rifle.

The administration is having a bad time trying to win public funding for the contras. It is extremely doubtful that President Reagan can get the $14 million he has requested for the "freedom fighters" trying to overthrow the government in Managua.

The college Republican effort reflects the desperation of the White House. A recent, dramatic escalation in presidential rhetoric about the cruelty of the Sandinistas has failed to generate, either in the country or in Congress, a corresponding enthusiasm for making the Sandinistas say uncle.

Part of the problem comes from the fact that Americans are in and out of Nicaragua all the time, seeing a different country. They tell about atrocities committed by the contras -- the killing and kidnaping of peasants, the burning of clinics and coffee plantations.

In fact, when the president talks about Nicaragua, it sounds as if he were talking about another Latin American country, namely Chile, where the cruelty and brutality he attributes to Nicaragua are in full view.

Reagan nonetheless approves of Chile. Nobody is collecting money to finance any uprising against the ruling butchers.

Chile's dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, refuses to lift the state of siege that he proclaimed on our election day as soon as he saw how the returns were going.

The State Department bleats about the state of siege now and then, but the most we have done about it is to pout: The U.S. abstained from a vote for a loan to Chile in the Inter-American Development Bank. But we have steadfastly refused to vote for condemnation of Chile in the United Nations. And on a recent trip to Santiago, our State Department representative to the area, Langhorne A. (Tony) Motley, fatuously announced that the the "destiny of Chile, in Chilean hands, is in good hands."

Maybe Motley should talk to the Roman Catholic Church groups in Chile who bravely report the "disappeareds" to the outside world. Maybe he should talk to a priest of the Columban Fathers, Dennis O'Mara, a Chicago native who spent seven years as a missionary in Santiago in a parish regularly swept by government troops carrying off workers who protested government policy. He joined a group protesting torture, and was gassed, beaten, sprayed with water cannon and arrested for demonstrating outside the offices and homes of officials responsible for torture.

Last Christmas, Father O'Mara was expelled from Chile as "a danger for the internal peace of the country."

Motley could also talk to members of a delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists who went to Chile in December. Censorship is legal; the three television stations are government-controlled. One radio station manager told them that under the new law a station can be closed for "even what they merely suspect we will do." Harassment of editors is routine and state-sponsored. Reporting of political news, except that released by the government, is forbidden.

Assembly of opposition parties and labor unions are banned.

Chile is the police state that Reagan thinks is Nicaragua.

He won't even talk to the Nicaraguans. Over the weekend, Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega stalked Vice President Bush through the throng of notables attending the inauguration of the new Brazilian president and, much to Bush's consternation, finally cornered him. Bush lectured him about freedom of religion and freedom of the press.

The U.S. bishops who recently visited Managua apparently did not find the Sandinistas beyond redemption. At least Archbishop John J. O'Connor of New York, whose leftist tendencies, if any, went entirely undetected during the recent presidential campaign, offered his good offices in mediating between the Sandinistas and the church and between Ortega and Reagan.

But Reagan wants to save the contras and obviously will have to be restrained legally from passing the hat to bankroll the campaign of terror in the jungle. The students, concerned about their college loans, do not seem like a very good bet. They're learning the value of money the hard way.