Congressional auditors say the federal government's own energy conservation program is a mess. The people who tell the rest of us how to drive and conserve, the General Accounting office says, are themselves operating without direction, and often basing actions and conclusions on rosy but incorrect reports about gasoline and energy savings.

The GAO, after a study of in-house federal energy programs, says Uncle Sam has a long way to go before he can tell industry or the public how to save gas and electricity.

A new GAO report to Congress says the federal government is the nation's largest consumer of energy, and that 55 percent of that energy goes into government-owned cars, trucks and buses.

Despite congressional orders that the Department of Energy set up and manage a federal energy program, GAO said, the department has provided little leadership. Whatever savings agencies are making, the GAO said, are generally attributable to individual actions or independent agency cutbacks on consumption.

GAO said the government could save thousands of gallons of gasoline if it seriously pushed carpooling. It also said private firms have increased mileage by special driver training programs and by careful monitoring to be sure drivers do not make non-business stops, or idle engines unnecessarily. It did not address the question of free or low-cost parking in government agencies.

The financial watchdog agency said the General Services Administration has done a good job of replacing gas-guzzlers with more efficient, smaller cars. And it said U.S. Postal Service officials claim electric vehicles now in service use about 20 percent less energy than gasoline automobiles.

Nevertheless, GAO concluded, the federal energy conservation program is something like a headless horseman. The Department of Energy -- which tells the nation to stop being wasteful and get ready for rationing -- isn't minding the government store. GAO also said the department has supplied "incorrect computations" that make it appear more energy is being saved than is the case.

The energy department, famous in the bureaucracy for its hair-trigger reaction to any criticism, said it had "no substantive disagreement" with the GAO report. But departmental officials said "we do feel that the implication that the secretary (James R. Schlesinger) had distorted the federal savings figure is inappropriate." DOE admitted a 'technical error" may exist, but says there was "no intent to mislead or distort the figures."

More laws: Something to ponder as you dig out of the blizzard today. If legislation is the path to true happiness, the Senate and House are taking good care of us.Since Congress got revved up last month more than 2,200 bills have already been introduced.