ALTHOUGH most Americans do not realize it, important officials in Washington are taking steps that could bring back the draft. This reality is obscured by the fog of contradictory statements coming out of the Carter administration and the Congress. Officials in both places are tiptoeing around the draft issue as though it were a dud bomb that might go off if they stamp their feet and speak their true thoughts.

President Carter himself, for example, is asking Congress for a lot more money this year for the Selective Service System, but he is vague about how it would be used. He does not commit himself to registering 18-year-olds for the draft or resuming the conscriptions that stopped in 1973.

Other officials, though, are less vague. Defense Secretary Harold Brown forced a new question on Carter and the Congress last week by declaring that, if draft registration is resumed, women as well as men should be required to register.

Secretary of the Army Clifford L. Alexander Jr. has showed no equivocation on the need for at least registration. "We need a better system than the one we now have for making the transition from our peacetime volunteer force to a wartime force based on conscriptions," he told the Phoenix Urban League on Jan. 11. "A useful step in that direction would be to provide for the peacetime registration of young people... I am not advocating this measure as a preliminary step to peacetime conscription," he added, stepping back from the political brink.

Air Force Gen. David C. Jones, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, agrees with Alexander, warning in addition that "a mechanism for peacetime registration is needed now."

In a related development, ACTION, the volunteer service agency, won approval from President Carter to request $2.8 million in fiscal 1979 supplemental funds for a year-long study on establishing a voluntary national youth serivce. An ACTION spokesman concedes such a service would be a vast undertaking and might compete with the military services in trying to recruit young men and women. "Join Me"

THERE'S A LARGE irony in all this: At a time when so many politicians are promising less government in private lives, some are also eager to build new programs and restore one of government's ultimate powers -- to conscript young people for the nation's purposes.

Democratic Rep. John J. Cavanaugh of Nebraska, for instance, believes this would be good for youths.He asked Carter last month to "join me" in supporting legislation to "provide for a universal obligation of public service for all Americans between the ages of 18 and 26. Each member of the society shares an equal obligation to make an individual contribution to meeting the needs of the whole society."

Under Cavanaugh's concept, every young man would have to register before his 18th birthday and declare whether he wanted to serve in the military or in government. The person would select any six-month period between his 18th and 26th birthday when he would be vulnerable to be drafted. If his name was drawn he would serve for two years. Otherwise, if peace prevailed, he would not have to serve in the military or in government.

Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Independent Harry F. Byrd of Virginia, both on the Armed Services Committee, will sponsor a bill to require young men to register for the draft. Nunn has also taken a careful step toward Cavanaugh's concept, declaring, "I hope that the Congress and the American people will also give serious attention to a national service system."

On the House Armed Services Committee, two senior members -- Democrats Charles E. Bennett of Florida and G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery of Mississippi -- are championing two different measures. Bennet would require the government to compile a list of 18-year-old men; the youths would not have to register on their own. Montgomery, who would put the registration burden back on the 18-year-olds, also would draft 100,000 to 200,000 men over five years for six months' active service and six years in the reserve.

All this congressional action indicates that many lawmakers do not realize they can impose the political risk of resuming registration on Carter -- without legislating themselves. The law leaves it up to the President to proclaim the "rules and regulations" for registering for the draft, though Congress would have to reinstate the fraft itself as well as make it applicable to women.

President Ford on March 29, 1975 issued Proclamation 4360 to revoke previous presidential proclamations, "thereby terminating the present procedures for registration." All Carter has to do to resume registration, according to Acting Selective Service Director Robert E. Shuck, is issue another proclamation setting forth the new rules.

Ford said he was suspending registration to look for a less expensive way to do it, such as keeping Selective Service offices open for registrations for short periods. Selective Service submitted a report on how this could be done, but, according to selective Service sources, Ford decided against moving back to registration of any kind in the 1976 election year.

Carter so far has settled on asking Congress to give Selective Service an extra $1.7 million in fiscal 1979 and to raise its budget an additional $2.5 million in 1980. The money "will allow the Selective Service System to continue to improve its capability to respond rapidly and efficiently from its standby posture," states the White House budget document.

Acting Selective Service Diector Shuck says that the last mobilization guidance he received was from John White, former assistant secretary of defense for manpower. White directed Shuck on Oct. 12, 1977 to gear up the system so it could -- if war came, for instance -- draft 100,000 men in 60 days and 650,000 "during the first six months of mobilization."

Shuck says that by getting names and addresses of 18-year-olds from the Social Security Administration, Treasury Department, state motor vehicle agencies and other sources, he could complile a list of young men to draft under that directive.

"But I couldn't screen them," he says. "We would be inducting people with one arm and the like. If I had registration, I could at least do some physical screening ahead of time. It would be cleaner to do it that way. But if you just want me to reach the minimum requirement, I can do it."