Washington — The congressional budget process, wobbly since it began eight years ago, this year faces its biggest challenge yet. The real question is whether Congress can break its engrained spending habits.
For almost 200 years Congress acted without a budget. Committees simply spent money, and at the end of the year someone added up the total. The number was then published in newspapers, often on the back pages.
Presidents wrung their hands in despair over deficits, but many members of Congress seemed oblivious. Despite intermittent recessions and even one depression, a generally expanding economy allowed the system to work.
However, in recent years economic growth has slowed, and the public began to focus on the ballooning federal deficit as the source of economic problems, particularly inflation.
''Pressure came from the American people that their congressmen act responsibly in fiscal matters,'' Rep. Richard D. Bolling (D) of Missouri, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, told a recent budget discussion called by the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition. That pressure produced the budget act of 1974, which requires Congress to pass a budget. It has put hard choices in the hands of lawmakers, who perennially prefer saying ''yes'' rather than ''no.''
Even in the face of huge deficits, House authorizing committees are still saying yes to spending plans that would create even more red ink. Budget chairman James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma said last week that authorizing chairmen told him flatly that ''if tough decisions are going to be made, they are going to have to be made by the Budget Committee.''
One budget expert sees a sentiment on Capitol Hill to drop the whole budget effort and return to the days of adding up total spending at the end of the year. Stanley E. Collender, president of the Budget Research Group and a former congressional staffer, says that of 20 Republican members he contacted, half see ignoring the budget act as one option.
''I don't believe people want to scrap it,'' counters Ralph Regula (R) of Ohio, a member of the House Budget Committee. The budget process is the ''only vehicle available,'' he says. But Mr. Regula concedes that no one is very anxious to jump aboard. Drawing an imaginary circle on a table-top, the congressman says, ''There's the budget, and everybody's circling it.''
''The uncertainty is the worst enemy,'' adds Regula, who says that Congress must send signals soon to the financial markets and the Federal Reserve Board that it will take action.
That action could come when the Congress tackles the raising of the national debt limit in early May. At that time the government runs out of cash. There has been widespread speculation that Congress will attach most of its 1983 spending and taxing plans to that vote.
Only a threat such as grinding the government to a halt may be enough to shake Congress into its onerous task of making a budget.
''The budget process is not a popular process,'' said Robert N. Giaimo, former Connecticut congressman (D) and House Budget chairman, last week. ''We have no goodies. All we have to give out is heartaches.''
The budget ''forces Congress to discipline itself, something Congress doesn't enjoy doing,'' said Mr. Giaimo, who now co-chairs the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. ''We're so much better at doing things to solve people's problems.''
Still, Mr. Giaimo noted that budgeting has taken a foothold in Congress, since even the most ardent prodefense members are saying we have to ''reduce the growth in defense.'' He said that ''nothing is as difficult'' as this year with record high deficit projections.
That assessment is virtually unanimous. ''We have never had an easy year for the budget process,'' according to Alice M. Rivlin, director of the Congressional Budget Office. ''But this year is different,'' she told the Northeast-Midwest Coalition meeting, because ''if you don't do anything, (deficits) will get worse and they will get worse very rapidly.''
She explained that while the tax cuts brought revenues down, ''we have not acted similarly on the spending side,'' and the choice now is either to cut spending or raise revenues.
If the federal government fails to do this, it may find itself forced to. A movement to pass a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget is gathering steam. By one estimate, such an amendment could take effect as early as 1987.