While a deadlocked fiscal 1983 budget dominates the headlines, the White House has quietly continued to snip at the fiscal '82 budget.
The tool: impoundment, the President's refusal to dispense money appropriated by Congress. It's a weapon Congress dislikes and few outsiders understand.
Now some congressmen and affected interest groups are getting piqued at President Reagan's use of the tool - and General Accounting Office (GAO) studies are charging the administration with technical illegalities.
''We contend they have no right to hold these funds up,'' says a congressman's aide. ''The bottom line is they're looking for ways to cut. They're looking in every nook and cranny.''
''We do think we are following the law,'' says Edwin Dale Jr., a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
Impoundment has had a long and colorful career. First invoked by Thomas Jefferson, it has been used by every president since Franklin Roosevelt both as a routine management tool and a backdoor method of altering Capitol Hill's spending priorities.
President Nixon's constant refusal to spend money on programs he disliked led Congress to conclude its power was leaching away. The result was the 1974 budget reform bill, which placed tighter controls on presidential impoundments.
Under the '74 bill, the White House can delay spending appropriated funds, a move called deferral; and it can shut the executive wallet for items it doesn't want to fund, an action named recision.
The President must send a message to Capitol Hill, telling of either action. Deferrals automatically take effect unless Congress votes disapproval. Recisions aren't legal unless specifically passed.
These reforms smoothed ruffled congressional feathers and quieted the controversy surrounding impoundments - until recently.
In one year and two months in office, the Reagan administration has requested 233 recisions, involving $26.8 billion, and 354 deferrals, totaling $15.3 billion, according to congressional estimates. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that about 82 percent of the recisions proposed in fiscal year '81 became law, and ''almost all'' deferrals took effect.
By contrast, President Ford in 1975-76 sent Congress 141 recisions, and 278 deferrals.
The impoundments have ranged from the relatively minor (elimination of the Department of Agriculture's beekeeper indemnity program) to the politically touchy (elimination of the popular Solar Conservation Bank and deep cuts in federal aid for special library services and construction).
Some say presidential impoundment powers aren't being stretched.
''The fact they're proposing it a lot doesn't mean they're abusing it,'' says Stanley Collender, president of Budget Research Group, a private research group. ''The problem this year is that congressional actions are so indefinite. I'm not sure the administration isn't using prudent management techniques.''
Others say it is an abuse of power.
''Whatever they don't get through the legislative process, they're using this process'' to try to obtain, says a congressional committee staffer who works on the issue.
Besides complaining about the sheer number of referral and recision requests, critics are raising these complaints:
* Congress sometimes isn't notified fast enough. For instance, last year, Environmental Protection Agency officials were told in mid-May that the White House proposed to rescind certain research and development funds. Congress didn't find out until June. Money to be spent for library services was frozen for four months before a message was sent to Capitol Hill.
''We continue to be concerned over the amount of time which elapses between the date funds are withheld from obligation and the date impoundment messages are transmitted to Congress,'' reads a GAO report issued last year.
Some budget experts say this problem is merely procedural. Mr. Collander calls it a ''noncontroversy.''
* Recisions are masquerading as easier-to-pass deferrals. The government is now living hand-to-mouth on stopgap continuing resolutions, and deferrals can run until such resolutions expire. In effect, unless Congress finishes action on the 1982 budget, deferrals can become full-fledged budget cuts.
''We think there is some indication they're trying to send up as many of these deferrals as possible,'' says the committee staffer.
* In some cases, the administration is breaking the law by sitting on money it has proposed for recision. Congress has 45 working days to approve a proposed recision. If it does nothing, the White House must spend the money. Usually, an administration just sits on the cash until it gets thumbs up or thumbs down. But the GAO says the executive can't withhold funds for certain mandatory spending programs. The GAO has ruled the $19.5 million in impounded library funds is being withheld illegally, for instance--though the OMB disagrees with the legal underpinnings of that finding.
''Not since the Nixon administration have we had the executive branch illegally impound money,'' said Rep. Peter A. Peyser (D) of New York, reacting to the GAO's findings.
Seven states have banded together and filed suit in District of Columbia District Court to force release of the library funds.
The bottom line, say critics, is that the administration is cutting spending by dragging its heels. Many programs are being funded at the levels President Reagan requested last September - levels Congress rejected. Others, such as the Solar Conservation Bank, are being proposed for elimination through recision, though Congress has consistently voted support.
''It's three times now Congress has refused to go along with this recision,'' says Dick Munson, head of Solar Lobby. ''(The administration) has stepped over the bounds of impoundment.''