In the wake of the savings and loan scandal, which may end up costing American taxpayers $500 billion, a disturbingly similar financial failure is being suffered by the federal Rural Electrification Administration.

The REA is a New Deal legacy that was originally established during the Roosevelt years to provide electric power to rural America with loans made or guaranteed by the federal government. It revolutionized farming by powering refrigeration and liberating farmers from many burdensome hand chores.Today, the REA channels low-interest loans and other subsidies to America's electric co-ops. Co-ops owe the agency $20 billion, but in its 1989 fiscal budget, the REA anticipated as much as 10 percent of that amount - $2.06 billion - wouldn't be repaid.

Unlike privately owned utilities, rural electric cooperatives are owned by the people who use them and are not run for profit. There are about 1,000 of them in the United States - from tiny operations that provide power to a few scattered customers to large outfits that serve hundreds of thousands.

Only a small fraction are in serious trouble, but nearly all have gotten low-interest federal loans or federal guarantees for bank loans. If co-ops don't pay back their REA loans, the agency could have trouble repaying its own debt to the Treasury Department. Taxpayers would indirectly have to make up that lost money through an increased federal budget deficit.

In most cases, the foundering co-ops were victims of oil price instability, the farm slump of the mid-1980s, overly ambitious expansion, and bad management. Sounds like a lot of the same reasons for the S&L fiasco.

Critics of the REA claim that the agency has outlived its usefulness and is now serving suburban areas more than rural ones. Be that as it may, early action is needed on the REA so that bigger bailout problems can be averted.