The federal government, penalizing a state for the first time under the 38-year-old Hatch Act, last week withheld a portion of Connecticut's child-support enforcement funds because state officials refused to fire an employe for seeking local office.

Although the $90,150 penalty is little more than a slap on the wrist, it seems sure to stir already growing congressional opposition to the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal, state and local employes whose paychecks come primarily from the federal government from running for partisan political office.

The case is a "perfect example of the kind of harassment and mischief the federal government gets involved in because of the complicated prohibitions of the act," said Rep. William L. Clay (D-Mo.), sponsor of a bill to revise the Hatch Act.

"The crime here," said Connecticut Attorney General Joseph Lieberman, "is simply that Wayne Camillieri ran for city council in Hartford, Conn." Camillieri is the acting chief of the administrative hearings division of Connecticut's Department of Human Resources.

Federal officials ordered Connecticut last May to oust Camillieri, who ran unsuccessfully in a Democratic primary for reelection to the Hartford City Council. When the state refused to comply, the Merit Systems Protection Board said it was "mandated by statute" to cut off funds.

"I view this as a very important case not only of constitutional rights, but of federalism," Lieberman said. "This is a direct confrontation between a federal law telling a state employe what he can't do and state law saying what he absolutely can do."

Lieberman said Connecticut will appeal the decision.

Federal officials notified Connecticut last week that it was withholding the $90,150 -- twice Camillieri's annual salary, the maximum penalty under the law. Camillieri works for a department that receives money from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement.

Federal officials contend his job is "principally funded by the federal government." State officials contend Camillieri spends more than half of his time dealing with matters purely financed with state funds.

The issue arises as Clay's bill has focused attention on the Hatch Act, which is particularly important in the Washington area with its 344,657 federal workers.

Clay's proposed revisions would allow federal employes to run for office, raise funds and work in partisan political campaigns on their own time. State employes may already engage in the latter two activities. Earlier attempts to revise the Hatch Act were vetoed by President Gerald R. Ford and failed to pass the Senate under President Jimmy Carter.

According to supporters of the revisions, the Hatch Act is so vague and convoluted that civil servants are unsure what is allowed and are therefore -- as the Montana state attorney general said -- "skittish" about participating in anything.

Supporters of the revisions testified in hearings on earlier versions of the bill last summer that enforcement is spotty and disproportionately directed at Democrats.

Special Counsel Mary F. Wieseman, who is responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act, said in an interview last summer that her office "can only interpret the law that we have.

"Many things that are questionable are not brought to our attention, but when matters are brought to our attention, we investigate," she said. Almost all enforcement actions arise from complaints.

Camillieri received a warning from federal officials before running for reelection.