As head of a wrecking crew dispatched two years ago by the Reagan administration to destroy VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), Thomas Pauken is now hip deep in a rubble of mismanagement. Pauken, the director of Action, which includes 480 VISTA projects, came before a House subcommittee last week to try to talk his way around a damaging preliminary report presented by the General Accounting Office.

The GAO examined Pauken's policies and management practices. The findings portrayed an agency that hasn't understood the law, ignored guidelines, made inappropriate use of volunteers, inflated its performance record, and went off on costly programmatic larks.

After disgorging all this, a GAO official was asked by Rep. Austin Murphy (D-Pa.), the subcommittee chairman, about the mood these days at Pauken's agency. "The anxiety level is quite high," he replied.

A lowering of anxiety might occur if Pauken could summon some candor. When asked about an October 1981 federal district court ruling that Action broke the law in killing a VISTA project, Pauken called the decision "a minor issue." Violating the law is minor?

Pauken's penchant for downsizing is a habit. Last summer, when the GAO's general counsel said that Action, in another case, acted illegally in cutting funds below the level mandated by Congress, Pauken said it was merely "a difference of opinion among attorneys."

The GAO, exploring the money-saving skills that Reagan appointees claim to possess, examined the finances of the Vietnam Veterans Leadership Program, a Pauken creation. When the supervisory costs of VVLP were compared with those of VISTA projects, Action was found to be throwing money at the problem in wild heaves of extravagance: "Comparatively," said the GAO, "the VVLP projects averaged $30,000 per project in supervisory costs, or about $5,500 per volunteer supervised, whereas the VISTA projects averaged about $4,200 per project in supervisory costs, or about $690 per volunteer supervised."

Another program launched by Pauken was Young Volunteers in Action. It received VISTA money and was therefore required by law to have as its focus the elimination of poverty. "We question," said the GAO, "whether YVA volunteers, now serving as 'library aides,' 'candy stripers,' 'tax-return preparers,' 'gardener's helpers,' 'clerks,' 'receptionists' and 'envelope stuffers'--as characterized by YVA project reports filed with the national office--meet the purpose and intent" of the law.

Pauken's mismanagement of Action is a fleck of dust compared with the bureaucratic sludge that recently oozed out of EPA. And among the conservative ideologues recruited by Reagan, Pauken has controlled his stridency. His grumblings about the mistakes of "the previous administration" have been muted, even though his predecessor at Action, Sam Brown, once raised right-wing hackles only slightly less high than Jane Fonda.

Despite the lowness of the Pauken profile, his incompetence is worth knowing about because it shows the excesses that almost predictably follow when a long-established, well-run, needed and bipartisanly supported program like VISTA is turned over to a party loyalist. Pauken came to Washington with no administrative experience in volunteer work and no knowledge in running national programs for the poor. A Texas lawyer, he lost two times in races for Congress. In the mid-1960s, he was the chairman of a group called College Young Republicans. Later he went to Vietnam as a military intelligence agent. His chores for the conservative wing of his party included producing a film that attacked the right's favorite hate-object, Tom Hayden.

In the Reagan administration, those might be impeccable credentials for, say, an ambassadorship. Any job of substance, though, was destined to be high risk.

The GAO findings necessarily stayed clear of Pauken's reasons for wanting to eliminate VISTA. He says the program is costly and not effective. Congress, continuing to see VISTA as the bright star of American voluntarism, rejects the Pauken line.

Under Reagan, the program has gone from $33 million in 1981 to $11.8 million in 1983, with elimination proposed in 1984. Congress now has still more reason to rescue the program. The law itself, not only hundreds of VISTA projects, is under assault.