EARLIER THIS WEEK we wrote an editorial based on the expectation that the administration was about to agree to a compromise on fair housing legislation -- that its new bill, unlike previous versions, would provide for enforcement through administrative law judges. That was wrong. A bill sponsored by Sens. Charles Mathias and Edward Kennedy and supported by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights does provide for such enforcement; the administration bill continues not to. While HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce was reportedly willing to accept administrative law judges, others in the administration insisted on enforcement only through suits brought by the Justice Department in federal courts.

So there remains a significant difference between the two bills on this central issue. There are other differences as well, the most notable being that the Mathias-Kennedy bill includes in its list of protected classes families with children.

We believed when similar bills were introduced in 1983 that there was room for debate over which method of enforcement would be faster and more effective. If we had to choose, we would favor Kennedy-Mathias's enforcement through administrative law judges as being speedier, among other things, but would not insist on protecting families with children because it is not clear that discrimination against them rises to the same level as discrimination for reasons of race or religion.

There is substantial support for Kennedy-Mathias and the identical measure introduced in the House by Reps. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) and Don Edwards (D-Calif.). It is not clear whether there is particular support for the administration measure; it has been placed in the hopper by Majority Leader Robert Dole, but he has not committed himself to supporting all its provisions.

The law forbidding housing discrimination was passed in 1968. The problem has been lack of a strong enforcement mechanism ever since. A good bill passed by the House in 1980 was smothered in the Senate; the differences then were much as now. They make legislating more difficult, but not impossible. It is Congress' job to choose between alternative means of accomplishing a desirable goal -- as Mr. Mathias put it, "a decent home in the neighborhood of one's choice."