REPRESENTATIVE Butell of Vermont was the first to discover it.

When he studied the president's 1980 budget closely, he found there was no line item to provide for the time and effort the executive branch will spend next year trying to analyze whether Sen. Edward Kennedy is running for president.

"I thought there was something fishy about that," Butell said in an interview. "I'm not saying the administration ought not spend a lot of executive manpower wondering about Kennedy's plans. But I do think the American people should know how much it costs."

His concern led Butell to request a study by the General Accounting Office, and the GAO findings, which the congressman made public yesterday, reveal that government spending on worrying about Sen. Kennedy's political plans has risen astronomically in the last 11 years.

"Now in 1968, for instance, there were only six people at the White House assigned to consider what he was going to do. And each of them spent a mean time of there days at a salary of $30,000, for a total of $2,160.

"But before the 1972 election the White House had some 30-odd people trying to dtermine whether or not Kennedy was going to run. Working for one and a half years at a yearly salary of $32,500 each, the GAO study shows, this anounts to $1,462,500."

According to Butell's figures, federal expenditures for worrying about Kennedy were fairly constant, considering inflation, in 1973 and into 1974. Expenditures dipped sharply in September 1974, when Kennedy announced that he was not going to be a condidate in 1976. Expenditures rose again in 1975 and 1976 when White House advisers decided they didn't believe him.

The GAO says it is difficult to ascertain how much federal money has been spent on Kennedy-worrying in the current administration. But the congressman thinks it is safe to assume that, even with the president's austerity budget, more than $2 million will be spent by the executive branch in trying to determine what Kennedy intends to do in 1980.

Congressman Butell charges a coverup by the press. "The reason is simple -- the press is into it up to their ears. They'll be the last ones to blow the whistle."

According to the Library of Congress, 1,412 "think pieces" about Kennedy's intentions appeared in newspapers in the last year alone. "Reading Kennedy's mind," Butell said, "has become a cottage industry."

"This issue is much bigger than Washington gossip," he insisted. "I have young children back in my district who don't even remember the first time Kennedy declared he was not a candidate."

Butell is drawing up legislation that would appropriate $4 million for a House select committee to investigate how much the federal government spends on Kennedy-watching.

A spokesman for Sen. Kennedy said that Kennedy would veto such legislation -- if he were president.