Does anyone want to guess the meaning of "a little longer"? David Stockman used the words when he told Congress: "There's so much waste in the Defense Department, it's taken us a little longer to figure it out.''

That was last April. Today, nearing four months later, Stockman is still figuring. A little longer has become lots longer.

With Stockman preoccupied with the waste in lavish programs like food stamps, in which many of the hungry gluttonize themselves on benefits of 43 cents a meal, Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D.Colo.) offered to help. The other day on the House floor, she proposed an amendment that would require the administration to find, and then eliminate, $8 billion of Defense Department waste.

Being a liberal who understands the temper of these rightish times, she knew it was not her place to think grandiosely: "It is $8 billion," she siad, "out of a projected $1.5 trillion that we are moving to spend over the next five years. i think that is a very small amount."

As it is indeed. Schroeder, in the style of generals and admirals who storm congressional committees with their arsenals of charts and graphs, had her own visual display: 44 General Accounting Office reports that documented $16 billion worth of defense waste in one recent 18-month period. She told of a 1980 Republican Study Committee report that found $16 billion of Pentagon waste. Schroeder called attention to the April U.S. News and World Report article, "Billions Down the Pentagon Drain," that spoke of the military's "apparent penchant for squandering money on a staggering scale."

During the debate, Schroeder, as if to emphasize that she had not gone half-mad against American militarism, said that she wanted the administration only to look for the fat. If it is discovered, she said, that "there is not enough waste to total $8 billion," then let's stop looking.

A colleague in sympathy with Schroeder pointed out that Congress had never really started to look. In his 12 years on the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.) recalled, "We have never held a hearing on the general subject of waste, fraud and abuse."

The Schroeder amendment was trouced, by a vote of 276--142. That same afternoon Congress approved by 354 to 63 a $136-billion weapons procurement bill, a 32 percent increase and the highest in our history.

The sentiment carrying the day came from Rep. Samuel Stratton (D-N.Y.): "Instead of telling the secretary of defense that we ought to try to find some way of cutting the defense budget by $8 billion, we ought to be backing him up in this great effort to give us a defense that will overcome some of our obvious vulnerabilities. We are $240 billion behind the Soviet Union, and if we want any kind of balance with the Soviets we have got to catch up and catch up fast."

This kind of frenzied alarmism, which is heard every year when the Pentagon orders and the Congress salutes, has long carried the day against liberals like Schroeder. It appears now, though, that it may also prevent David Stockman from any kind of meaningful action.

Rep. Les Aspin, the Wisconsin Democrat who knows as much as anyone in Congress about military waste, wonders whether Stockman has "the will or the political clout to pull off the cuts. There are people at OMB who know where the bodies are buried. The explanation that it 'took a little longer' to ferret out defense waste because of the Pentagon's size doesn't hold water since all Stockman need do is call a few of OMB's longtime staffers into his office. In other words, it's the commitment that is the key variable, not expertise."

A thorough assault by OMB on the wate in the military would probably do more to strengthen the economy, enhance genuine national security and take economic pressure off the poor than anything in the nation's history. Were Stockman to act, the civilian bureauracy might block him more than the military bureaucracy. One man's waste, fraud and abuse is, in another congressional district, another man's contracts, profits and votes.

The assumption behind military spending is that the public does not question the decisions that create waste. Until now it hasn't. But not until now -- with even newstand magazines trumpeting the abuses -- has the public been told the actual enormity of the waste.