Paper work flows through Washington like water down the Mississippi at floodtime. It comes in reports that draw no conclusions, and records and forms that no one can understand, and studies that are among the most boring documents on the face of the earth. The largest industrial employer in the city is (surprise!) the Government Printing Office.
The creation and movement of paper is much of the federal government's reason for being, so controlling the flow means getting a rein on the government itself. And, according to an appendix to the Reagan budget, the stream of federal paper work is in fact slowing.
The ''paper work budget'' has been cut 13 percent since President Reagan took office, a budget document claims. For fiscal '83 it will be slashed another 10 percent, though the pen-weary public will still face desks piled with 1.2 billion man-hours of work-required by Washington .
''The public has only a limited amount of time to supply, and the Federal Government only a limited amount of resources to assemble, process, and use this information,'' says the budget, crowing that the current administration will ''recognize these constraints and set information collection priorities accordingly.''
The effort to turn back the paper tide actually began before Mr. Reagan took office, with the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. The Act requires Office of Management and Budget approval for any record-keeping requirement that affects more than nine individuals or organizations. New forms must be rated according to the number of ''burden-hours'' they will heap on recipients.
The budget lists these ''major reductions'' planned to be in place by the end of 1982:
* Some 17 million burden-hours should be saved by tuning out the Federal Communications Commission requirement that radio stations keep program logs - a minute-by-minute account of what was being broadcast.
''The logs were chiefly used by the FCC to ensure compliance with the guidelines for (public service) programming and the number of commercial minutes per hour,'' an FCC broadcast division lawyer says.
But the public-service and commercial guidelines were eliminated this year, making the logs irrelevant.
''We applauded the decision,'' a spokesman for the National Assocation of Broadcasters says, ''but we are urging broadcasters, for their own good and relationships with advertisers, to keep some form of record.''
* Some 9 million hours of form-filling should be saved by loosening Department of Transportation requirements for truck drivers' logs. If they never travel beyond a 100-mile radius from their starting point, drivers no longer have to record their driving time and rest time - but they must return to home base within 12 hours.
''(Washington) gave some and took away some,'' says Will Johns, technical services director of the American Trucking Association. To really relieve truckers of paper work, Mr. Johns says, the government should eliminate its one standard log and tell truckers that ''you can develop forms that are most efficient for your type of service.''
* In addition, 11 million hours are expected to be saved by adopting a common claim form for medicare and medicaid. Reducing the Internal Revenue Service's Employers Quarterly Tax Return should slash 12 million hours. Some 5.4 million hours of ink-stained labor should be eliminated by last summer's budget cuts, which lumped 57 categorical grant programs into nine jumbo block grants.
But what of those 1.2 billion hours of paper-shuffling that will still be left? Who, you ask, is producing all those forms with mind-numbing tiny print and sentences that twist and turn like mountain roads?
According to the budget, 45 percent of the paper work burden is piled on by the Treasury Department, with most of that coming from everyone's favorite agency, the IRS. Fourteen percent is information collected by the Department of Transportation. The Departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture each churn out 8 percent of the federal paper work burden.
Fifty-seven percent of the government's required forms will land (undoubtedly with a resounding thwack) on the desks of business and other institutions. Households will get 32 percent. Ten percent will be imposed on state and local governments, and 1 percent will come down on the farms.