New interest in the nation's economic health will make it easier for the Carter administration to sell Congress federal pay "reform." Officials say they could save up to $2.8 billion from this Cotober's federal-military raise if they can get reform on the lawbooks by late summer.

Carter put the controversial, complicated pay reform plan in his new budget, but many observers figured it was a dead-duck with this election-year Congress. They noted that members testifying on "reform" said it unfairly would cut back raises of their federal constituents. Hardly anybody in Congress had nice things to say about pay reform up to now, but things change, and this week could see a tilt in favor of pay reform.

Jitters about a 20 percent inflation rate, and a new belt-tightening schemes from the White House have given political sex appeal to budget cutting. A favorite target -- as always -- will be "the bureaucracy."

Administration aides say they could save the taxpayers a bundle this year if they could put just one phase of reform into effect. It is called "total compensation."

Federal pay raises now are set under a complicated system that matches government salaries with selected private industry firms. Fringes aren't measured. Under total compensation, the total value of the compensation package -- vacation, sick leave, holidays and retirement -- would be considered when setting federal pay raises. Using that formula, the White House says the size of the Cotober federal pay adjustment could be cut substantially.

Pay reform has been on the back burner, because of opposition from unions and congressional preoccupation with other matters -- from Iran to reelection. It is becoming fashionable to have a hand in trimming the budget, and it could become more fashionable as members feel the heat from their nonfederal voters.

Top brass at the Office of Personnel Management have been preaching the gospel of pay reform in the same effective style they used to sell Congress civil service job reforms last year. If they can convince the public that the current federal pay system is inflationary, they will be halfway to victory.

If pay reform comes this summer, the government is geared up to base the October federal pay raise on "total compensation" rather than in straight salary matchups with industry. Later on it would add locality pay (linking federal salaries to hometown industry rates), cuts in blue collar salary steps, and comparing of state and local government pay to federal rates.