The Administration continues to make out the Labor Department's affirmative action program to be more than it is. The latest example occurred in the president's news conference last week. He was asked why there continues to be talk of thinning out the executive order on which the program depends. Because the program is "becoming a quota system," he said.

The program regulations forbid resort to quotas. Hiring and other "goals may not be rigid and inflexible quotas which must be met, but must be targets reasonably attainable by means of applying every good faith effort," they say. But "we find down there at the bureaucracy level," the president said, "and out there actually in personnel offices and so forth, they choose the easy course, set down a system of numbers and say, well, we'll go by that. And this is what we're trying to correct."

Attorney General Edwin Meese, leader of those who would sidetrack the program, made a similar charge at a news conference last month. His civil rights division, he said, had assembled a "litany" of Labor Department cases "where goals and timetables were actually used as subterfuges for quotas." But the Justice Department said later the list of cases was confidential -- and the opposite testimony comes from the Labor Department. "Nobody's ever put any cases before me that involve quotas," said Joseph Cooper, the administration's own choice as head of the program. "I'm still waiting. I don't see them."

The affirmative action program is 20 years old, an established part of the societal landscape to which most businesses long ago became accustomed, and for the steadiness of which many are grateful. The requirements have been softly enforced; the maximum penalty, debarment from further federal work, has rarely been invoked in any administration, and only once or twice in this.

Such groups as the National Association of Manufacturers and Business Roundtable have urged (in a split with another leading business group, the Chamber of Commerce) that the program be left alone, as have 69 senators, 23 of them Republicans, including Majority Leader Bob Dole. They see the issue as Son of Bob Jones, the self-inflicted civil rights embarrassment of the first Reagan term. For similar reasons, other Cabinet members have sided internally with Labor Secretary Bill Brock in support of the program.

Quotas are not the issue here; they are not being required or imposed. The issues are whether the government should continue to press within the modest confines of this program for greater opportunities to be made available to blacks and members of other minorities who can qualify for them -- and whether, as both a goal and a means of measnt should continue to compare racial and other employment percentages in particular firms with the same percentages in the work force as a whole. The sensible answer to both questions is yes.