CALLS for fiscal responsibility and sound budgeting have guided much legislative thinking this year. But when it comes to defense spending, Congress presses the ''mute'' button. People may still be calling for those things, but they're not being heard.
A look at the defense appropriations bills left behind by the Senate and House when they recessed for August leaves little doubt that factors other than calculations of the military's needs and available resources are at work.
Partly, what's at work is old-fashioned pork barrel politics. Senators and congressmen with jobs to protect at shipyards and plane factories always play this game. Thus $1.3 billion will go to a Litton Industries subsidiary in Pascagoula, Miss., to build an amphibious ship that the Pentagon didn't ask for this year. Republican Senators Trent Lott and Thad Cochran of Mississippi wanted the project, and both men hold important armed services committee posts.
Sometimes the maneuvering for pork can blur party and ideological lines. A team of conservative Republicans and liberal California Democrats made sure the House bill included over $500 million to build two new B2 bombers. (The plant is in southern California.)
Of course, one person's pork is another's essential weapons system. And some areas, such as southern California, have an unusual concentration of critical defense industry.
But such undovelike critics as Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona - former Navy pilot in Vietnam and son of the former commander of United States forces in the Pacific - has called the B2 a ''relic of the cold war.''
The same could be said of the Seawolf submarine, another super-expensive item with persistent, bipartisan support.
Problems with the current state of affairs are two-fold:
1. A Pentagon budget padded with pork mocks the idea of a spending plan shaped by a careful assessment of likely future needs. A commission reported to Congress last May on security demands in a changing world, but the legislators seem to have mislaid its findings.
2. If Congress insists on hiking military spending beyond the Penatgon's requests, it risks weakening its own thrust toward a balanced budget. Big weapons programs nailed onto the '96 appropriations portend increased demands later on, as spending on them grows. Those who ask why the ''guns'' part of the budget shouldn't take its fair share of the cuts have a strong case.
Congressional ''hawks'' worry about the world's myriad threats and pine after ''star wars'' anti-missile defenses. And they berate President Clinton for gutting the Pentagon's procurement budget. But the fact is, the president's six-year plan for defense spending will spend about as much as the Republican plans. The issue is not Clinton and his Defense Department gutting this budget, but the desire of others to lard it.
When the Senate returns to finish up its defense appropriations bill on Sept. 5, it should mercilessly trim the fat to offset the House's even portlier bill. But it probably won't.
Of course, one person's pork can be another's essential weapons system.