Washington — Ronald Reagan, when running for president, constantly called Uncle Sam too fat. The federal government, said candidate Reagan, spent too much, ate too much in taxes, and burdened the United States with piles of unnecessary regulations.
Today, after two years of the Reagan administration, is Uncle Sam a more slender version of his former self?
Not really. He's just not as heavy as he might have been otherwise.
In 1980, the federal budget weighed in at $576.7 billion. In 1982, the government spent $728 billion. Even when you subtract for inflation, that's a growth rate of more than 3 percent a year.
The 1980 budget's bulk took up 22.6 percent of the gross national product. By 1982 government spending accounted for about 24 percent of GNP.
After two years of political struggle over ''cuts,'' after two years of speeches about ''slashing to the bone,'' after innumerable jokes about Budget Director David Stockman and his scissors, what's happening here? Why is the Reagan budget only $5 billion less than President Carter's projections for 1982?
For one thing, defense spending, interest on the national debt, and payment programs such as social security have kept right on growing. Only grants to state and local governments and some social service programs are actually getting less money than they used to.
''There has been an important shift in priorities in the budget, from welfare to warfare, but net cuts in spending have been very modest,'' the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Murray Weidenbaum, told the National Journal late last year.
The tenacious recession also boosted government expenses for farm price supports, unemployment compensation, and interest rates.
Without the Reagan administration's efforts, the '82 budget would have been $ 27 billion bigger than it was, says Office of Management and Budget spokesman Ed Dale. Spending in 1983 ''will be about $50 billion below what it would have been ,'' Mr. Dale claims.
Meanwhile, Washington's appetite for taxes, while continuing to grow when looked at in terms of dollars eaten, is actually shrinking when measured against the growth of the economy.
In 1981 Uncle Sam collected $599 billion in taxes. In 1982, he raked in about to 20.4 percent, estimates the Congressional Budget Office.
A main cause of this rollback is the Reagan administration's massive 1981 tax cut, which cost the government almost $60 billion in revenue this year.
So spending is increasing relatively faster than taxes - a situation that helps cause the $100 billion to $200 billion deficits now terrorizing politicians in Washington.
The burden of federal regulation was also an item President Reagan vowed to cut. The President's Task Force on Regulatory Relief claims administration regulatory restraint has now saved business $9 billion in investment costs, and regulations hasn't been nearly that large.
''They've probably cut the flow of new regulations some, but the notion that somehow we've got a whole different world out there is an oversimplification,'' says George Eads, a University of Maryland professor who served on President Carter's Council of Economic Advisers.
Reagan froze 172 regulations in progress when he took office. Of those, 112 eventually went through without change, according to the National Journal. Only 18 were withdrawn outright.
And the administration hasn't been able to push through changes in regulatory legislation such as the Clean Air Act.
Finally, when measured in terms of number of people employed, the federal government is but slightly smaller today. Uncle Sam now employs 2,825,000 people , says Peter Ognibene, publisher of Federal Jobs Digest. A year ago the federal work force was 2,860,000.
The Defense Department has 70,000 new civilian employees, says Mr. Ognibene. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior have gained 5,000 each. The Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Transportation, on the other hand, have all lost at least 10,000 workers.