A multi-billion-dollar fight is shaping up on Capitol Hill, a battle that will determine the future size, shape and cost of the federal bureaucracy and the growing army of private contractors who help Uncle Sam do everything from wash windows to design nuclear missiles.

Every member of Congress will feel the heat from this one, because it involves big bucks, from $40 billion to $150 billion, the price tag for government contract work.

The vehicle for the fight is a bill, H.R. 4717. It was introduced by Rep. Herbert Harris (D-Va.). Harris chairs a subcommittee dealing with the civil service, and represents a district where most of the voters are civil servants.

Harris says his bill, now being reviewed by the Government Operations Committee, would make it tougher for federal managers to skirt civil service job ceilings by contracting out work. Harris says the taxpayers are being duped into thinking the size of government (the civil service part) has been stabilized, when in fact it is growing in the form of private contractors. Harris estimates the government now spends a quarter of its budget, or around $150 billion a year, to pay between 4 million and 8 million private contract employes.

The Harris bill would, he says, force agencies to adopt a truth-in-contracting system, and cut back on end-of-year spending sprees when agencies use up funds to hire contractors and consultants, rather than turn money back to the Treasury.

Opponents of the Harris bill, ranging from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to large and small companies, charge it is a blank check for "socialism." They say it could eliminate contracting out and force Uncle Sam to double or triple the payroll if the present level of services is to be continued.

Ed Leeson, director of the National Council of Technical Service Industries, says the Harris bill looks good, but would taste terrible to the taxpayers."It is like a beautiful lake at sunset: tranquil, lovely, inviting," Leeson said, "except the lake is full of alligators that will eat up everybody."

Leeson said Harris and his staff "pulled their statistics out of the air" to scare people. He said the actual number of private contract employes working for government is about 2.5 million at most, slightly less than the 2.7 million federal civil service work force itself.

Leeson, whose group is funded by government contractors and major industry groups, says Harris "pulled the $150 billion figure out of the air to scare people. Harris, he said, includes the cost of all contracted goods and services in the figure, which he believes is too high. Leeson said the actual cost of individuals hired by contractors to do work for government in support services is "more accurately $40 billion."

Whichever set of statistics or semantics you buy, this is big money both sides are talking about.

Federal unions, obviously, are strongly behind the Harris bill. A major portion of Washington's contractor community is violently opposed to it. m

Harris believes that lids on government employment encourages managers -- military and civilian -- to hire outsiders to get the job done. Many federal officials, Harris feels, have "simply become brokers" for hiring contractors. He feels his measure would allow for legitimate contracting out, but force agencies to cut their own personnel slots when they hire contractors.

Industry groups argue that Harris' measure tilts everything in favor of bigger bureaucracy. They say it would be an administrative nightmare to police, and requirements that agencies cut their own staffs when they contract in effect would eliminate contracting out. It may come up for a House vote in June, but there will be plenty of heat and pressure on members to kill -- or push -- it before then.