An Army sergeant ran up a $14,000 telephone bill in Michigan and promised to pay. But when he was transferred to Fort Collins, Colo., Michigan Bell Telephone Co. got worried, and although the sergeant still says he will pay, he has not.

Under the law, Michigan Bell cannot garnishee his wages because he works for the federal government.

The American Collectors Association cited his case at House hearings yesterday on a bill to take away the protection federal workers enjoy against wage garnishment.

They are protected from garnishment for commercial debt because of the doctrine of sovereign immunity, that is, the government cannot be sued unless it waives its immunity.

"Sovereign immunity is a vestige of royalty and monarchies," said Rep. Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.). "The question is, can Uncle Sam afford to be a good corporate citizen" and stop "shielding deadbeats?"

The bill is opposed by the Defense Department, Office of Personnel Management, Justice Department and the American Federation of Government Employees, among others.

"For many military members, particularly new recruits, being in the Army is their first opportunity to earn a steady income and establish a credit rating," said Col. Duane G. Ingalsbe, chief of the program, budget and compensation policy division in the office of the Army deputy chief of staff for personnel. "While most merchants in the vicinity of Army posts are honest, some offer enticing 'instant military credit' programs for high-cost items such as used automobiles, stereo equipment and furniture.

"Soldiers are then confronted with long-term installment payments on contracts that routinely call for the total amount due upon missing a payment, nonremoval of property from the area without consent of the seller, waiver of notice of collection action and liability for collection costs.

"This legislation would only compound the young soldiers' vulnerability," he testified before the civil service subcommittee of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee.

The Army does not condone "irresponsible failure" to pay just debts, Ingalsbe said. "Commmanders take a personal interest in ensuring soldiers avoid financial problems," and the Army provides extensive financial counseling through family resource centers and legal assistance offices. Failure to pay debts is punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, he said.

Jacobs discounted the arguments. "If {soldiers} are irresponsibly incurring debts, is it the best policy to excuse them?"

The federal government has agreed to waive immunity in cases of garnishment for child support and alimony, and the government has developed an "offset" program to collect student loans and other delinquent debts owed to the government by federal workers.

But garnishment for commercial debt would impose "substantial administrative burdens" on the government, according to Claudia Cooley, associate director for personnel systems and oversight at OPM.

Dr. A. Charlene Sullivan, associate director of the Credit Research Center at Purdue University, said that the exemption from garnishment for federal employees "results in a considerable monetary loss for creditors that must be paid by all other borrowers."

She estimated this to be between $200 million and $400 million each year.

Jacobs said he had introduced his bill every year since 1977, but that yesterday was the first time hearings had been held on the measure. He said he did not know why interest has grown this year, but he thinks it may be because he has finally given the bill a title.

He calls it the Goose, Gander and Sauce Act.