THERE's A lot of buck passing these days, not the least of which involves consumers digging deeper into their pockets to shell out money for once-free government publications.

As blame for "horrendous" price increases circulates from one government agency to another, the Government Printing Office rakes in $4.25 for the 43-page booklet "The Sodium Content of Your Food." Before last week, the pamphlet, which lists the milligrams of sodium in about 750 common foods, cost $2.25. "Ideas for Better Eating," consisting of menu and recipe suggestions which support the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, climbed from $2.75 to $4.

The GPO now prints a total of 25,000 titles for different governmental agencies. If officials at the Department of Agriculture want a booklet that tells people how much sodium is found in common foods, they go to the public printer--Danford Sawyer currently holds the post--and ask him to run off a certain number of copies of a book that lists such information.

The public printer takes a look at the work and, if he likes it, he may decide to print a few for GPO. So, while the USDA gives its copies to those who request it, the public printer sells it through 27 bookstores nationwide and the Pueblo, Colo., distribution center.

The irony, at least to consumers, is rich: The new price hikes come at a time when Food and Drug Commissioner Arthur Hayes leads many top administration officials in pointing to sodium consumption as a primary health concern. Today, about 60 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure, which many people believe to be exacerbated by excess sodium intake. To this end, both the FDA and USDA are encouraging food processors to label the sodium content of foods they produce and to reduce the sodium in the food.

In addition, USDA officials, among them Secretary John Block, insist that they support the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, yet they have discontinued the publication of the Guidelines, and the price of the support materials (such as "Ideas for Better Eating") from GPO has gone up.

Are some administration officials simply giving lip service to these preventive-health goals?

Roger Miller, spokesman for the FDA, passes the buck to the GPO. He says that FDA stands firmly behind its sodium emphasis, and the agency can do nothing about the price increases of government publications. The FDA, he says, is publishing an 8-page pamphlet, "Sodium: Think About It," which describes the four food groups in terms of high-, moderate- and low-sodium content. The booklet is "not as comprehensive" as "The Sodium Content of Your Foods," but it's free, through both FDA and the Consumer Information Center in Pueblo, Colo.

USDA spokesman Claude Gifford also passes the buck toward GPO. "It's a sizeable increase," he says about the price of "Sodium Content," adding that he knows the Superintendent of Documents at GPO is required by law to break even when selling publications. And GPO controls the charge for publications.

The department won't reprint dietary guidelines, he says, because it has already distributed 7.5 million copies, and the guidelines have been published numerous times privately and by the media.

The USDA charges nothing for its publications. That means while GPO charges a hefty $4.50 for "Making Pickles and Relishes at Home," the USDA, through its publications center and extension offices, will give away single copies upon request. When it runs out of booklets, says Gifford, USDA staff "take a good hard look" at the reprinting costs and at the publication's popularity. Further, they try to determine if the public need is being met by private industry. Right now, the USDA has 150,000 copies of "The Sodium Content of Your Food" to give away.

The current Superintendent of Documents agrees that the price increases are "horrendous." Raymond Taylor, who has held the position less than a month, divides the See BOOKS, E2, Col. 4 The Book -Stops Here BOOKS, From E1 buck and passes it in several directions.

First, he says, his overhead costs are tremendous. Even though "Sodium Content" costs 14 cents (according to some sources) to print, additional charges come with storage and handling. "Until we can bring down costs of overhead," he says, "we cannot bring down costs of publications."

GPO employees, he says, make "22 percent more than their counterparts in the federal or private sector." But, he notes, all GPO employees are scheduled for six days of furlough this year, in an attempt to save money.

He doesn't mind passing some of the blame to private publishing concerns, either. "Any enterprising entrepreneur can reprint a government publication and sell it for what he can get for it," Taylor points out. There is no copyright on any government document. So while the government may charge $3.25 for a 3-by-5-inch 80-page pocketbook called "Calories and Your Weight," a private publisher can sell it for $1 or so.

Taylor says that price increases will only discourage more people from purchasing publications, which will increase handling costs, which will increase the price, which will discourage people even more, and on and on. "It is something of a vicious cycle," he says. "It does not conform to what the public in past years has come to expect and come to rely on."

He lays ultimate blame at the feet of Congress, which made the law that requires the GPO to remain in the black. "There's no doubt in my mind where the responsibility is," he says. "The executive branch executes laws passed by the legislative branch." If Congress wanted its members to have unlimited access to publications to send to constituents, let it pass the law, he says. If Congress wants government agencies to have unlimited access to their own publications, let it pass the law. If it doesn't want to require GPO to break even, let it pass the law, he insists.

The Joint Committee on Printing, a Congressional committee which oversees the activity of the GPO, has asked the General Accounting Office to examine the cost and pricing formulas of the printing office, "so we can have a better understanding of what it costs," says Tom Kleis, the committee's staff director.

Kleis passes the buck back to Public Printer Sawyer, who's ultimately responsible for all publication price increases. Kleis claims that the Joint Committee "tries to see that the public has access to public documents at the most reasonable prices."

On the other hand, says Kleis, "The public printer talks about making a profit, about having money left over. That's a philosophical view not necessarily shared by everyone in government." In addition, says Kleis, the public printer doesn't want to publish anything that won't yield $1,000 in gross sales. The Joint Committee on Printing and the public printer, adds Kleis, "are at odds on this very issue. You should not base the price you charge for a publication on its ability to make money for you."

"It's news to me that we are at odds over this issue ," says Public Printer Sawyer. "Congress has mandated that this operation break even. We are not trying to make a profit and never said we wanted to make a profit."

The department, says Sawyer, was operating at a $20 million loss when he took office. "This fiscal year we are running a modest profit, approximately in excess of $3 million." But, he added, the slow summer season may reduce the department's yearly take. "We have turned around the loss," he says. "That's not making up the $20 million loss, however. They are a committee of Congress. If Kleis is saying he doesn't agree with that break-even profit, he has a problem with Congress, not with me."

As the buck circulates, the public may wonder where to get free or reasonably priced publications.

The Nation's Capital Affiliate of the American Heart Association publishes a 145-page cookbook called "Cooking Without Your Salt Shaker," which can be purchased by sending $4 to 2233 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007. It also can be purchased at Heart Association chapters for $3.

In addition, many USDA publications are available at no charge through the Publications Center, 14th Street and Independence Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20250. USDA cautions, however, that when it receives an enormous number of requests for one publication mailings might be slow. If its stores are low, it might even have to reprint, which causes further delay. Many of the publications are distributed at no charge through county extension offices.

Nelson Fitton, head of the USDA publications center, warns that free publications might be available for just a few more months. He says, "We will be in a very difficult period in responding to requests" in the near future. Last week, the publications people at the USDA expected a memo from Secretary Block announcing "user fees" for publications.

"It's dangerous to encourage people to write us for free information until we find out how this new system will work," Fitton says. To determine what publications are available, he says, one can write to the Utilization and Inquiries Branch, Office of Government and Public Affairs, Room 507A, USDA, Washington, D.C. 20250.

To find out what's available from the GPO, one needs only to name a subject ("diet" or "food", for instance) and it will send a free bibliography of titles. Write to the Superintendent of Documents, GPO, Washington, D.C. 20402. Catalogues and other publications may be obtained from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.