IN ADDITION to all the other economic roles it plays, the federal government is the nation's largest employer, consumer and investor. The Office of Management and Budget each year puts out a little publication that describes the government in these terms. It is an analysis of federal obligations by "object class."

You can learn from this that the government probably will have a printing bill this fiscal year of $1.2 billion. Congress will account for a third of this.

The cost of "travel and transportation, persons," will be $3 billion. This category runs the gamut from airplane tickets to the more than 300 million gallons of gasoline that the government will buy.

For "transportation of things," as opposed to persons, the government will spend about $4.8 billion. Its telephone and utility bill, together with all rent it pays to commercial landlords, will come to about $6.8 billion. Labor costs -- wages plus fringe benefits -- will total an estimated $89.5 billion.

For "acquisition of capital assets," expenditures will be 73.6 billion. These assets are divided in the analysis into equipment (for which outlays will be $34.3 billion); land and structures ($9.1 billion), and investments and loans ($30.2 billion).

Most of what the government spends, however, it does not spend on itself. In another special budget analysis, OMB estimated last week that about 42 percent of federal outlays now are "transfer payments" -- checks sent directly to individuals. An additional 15 percent goes out as grants to state and local governments, while 8 percent is interest.

Only a third of the budget is for direct purchases of goods and services. Two-thirds of this -- 21 per cent of the budget -- is for defense purchases.

The remainder -- about 12 percent of the budget -- is for non-defense purchases. This is the amount -- a little over $60 billion -- that it costs to run the multitude of civilian agencies that most people perceive as the federal government. In this sense, that government is not as large as its budget makes it seem.