THE DEBATE OVER federal budget cuts these days seems to have overlooked a fundamental fact. Behind it all is the growing drive to add a budget-balancing amendment to the Constitution -- a drive that is not as far away from reality as some might think, and one that will not go away merely because Congress may pare the budget for this year or next.

Forget inflation for a moment if you can. Forget whether cutting this group of programs or adding that amount of federal revenue might slow price rises by two-tenths of a percentage point or 2 full points. Forget Jimmy Carter's old campaign promise to straighten out our collective checkbook or his current prayers about what the economy will look like around election day. Forget worries about wage-price controls, about jittery markets, about Congress bumping up against its own deficit budget ceilings and having to halt appropriation bills.

Think constitutional amendment. Think of the 30 states that have issued calls for a constitutional convention on the balanced-budget idea, and of the necessary four more that may join in in the not too distant future. Only then do you realize, as Jerry Brown did in California and other governors have elsewhere, that budget cutting is not simply some choice made by a chief executive or a legisature, that deep cuts will be inescapable for some time, whether officeholders and their special constituencies like it or not.

Though some quake at the thought, the fact is that we are apt to be faced with a call for a real live constitutional convention, the first since the Founding Fathers got together in 1787. Fourteen more states are now considering such measures; in two of them, a convention call has already passed the state senates (by 26 to 11 in Kentucky and 20 to 11 in Missouri), and it had also passed the senate in a third state (West Virginia) before the legislature there adjourned for this session. David Keating of the National Taxpayers Union, a leading force behind the drive, says he expects "to get the additional four states either this year or next."

The odds are on his side. Some may think that Washington's born-again budget-cutting will undermine the state efforts, but actually it is just as likely to increase the appetite for a convention. Washington's actions, after all, are only playing catch-up and confirming what the convention supporters have been saying all along -- but without satisfying their demands.

The cuts being debated for this year's federal budget obviously will not balance anything, and voters are not so naive as to expect that a "paper" balance for the fiscal 1981 budget will necessarily turn into reality. If Congress has not been able to keep within its own red-ink budgets, why should anyone think the next budget go-round and the ones after that -- particularly between election years -- will be different?

That, of course, is why there is such force behind the convention call -- because of disbelief that Washington will do it on its own, because of a widespread determination to require that the federal books be balanced, not once in a while but every year.

This sentiment, moreover, has been reinforced now by Congress' meek consideration of its own balanced-budget amendment. A Senate Judiciary subcommittee did pass a measure last December providing essentially what is in the state calls. But the bill was narrowly defeated last week by the full committee, and there is scarcely any chance at this point that such a proposal could garner the necessary two-thirds votes in both houses should it be revived.

It is conceivable that, before or shortly after the necessary 34th state adopts a call for a constitutional convention, a panicky Congress will indeed try to pass its own amendment, very rapidly, and that this might avert a convention. Nineteen of the adopted calls thus far give Congress that choice -- propose its own amendment or call a convention.

Some of those who tremble at the notion of holding a constitutional convention are counting on this strategy as an insurance policy. If that happens, of course, we would have the same persistent demands to balance the budget -- and keep it balanced -- while the amendment goes through the state ratification process.

But what is deeply troubling is that so many in Washington and elsewhere are so afraid of a constitutional convention at all. Their apprehension suggest a fear of democracy itself, a fear of the people, as if the government is supposed to decide whether it can trust the citizens, rather than the other way around. That kind of attitude is what this country was intended to abolish.

The Founding Fathers anticipated two centuries ago, though, that there might be times when Congress became part of the problem rather than part of the solution. They included in Article V of the Constitution 20 words that have never yet been used, never interpreted by any court: "On the application of the Legislatures of two-thirds of the several states, [Congress] shall convene a convention for proposing Amendments . . ."

In the final summary statement of the Federalist, the series of 85 papers published anonymously in newspapers by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison in support of ratification of the Constitution, they dealt with the possibility that Congress would refuse to pass a needed amendment. They pointed out that Congress could be bypassed:

"The national rulers, whenever nine [now 34] states concur, will have no option upon the subject . . . The words of this article are preemptory. The Congress 'shall call a convention.' Nothing in this particular is left to the discretion of that body."

If Congress were to disobey those 20 words in the Constitution and refuse to call a convention, it could be ordered to act by the Supreme Court, and its members could be jailed for contempt. If it still failed to act, the states could convene a convention themselves, and the actions of that convention would be equally valid.

As the calls for a consititutional convention have been considered, state by state, opponents have unsuccessively argued against passage on the ground that the convention could become a runaway meeting.

Some have claimed that such a convention could repeal even our most basic rights. On the other side, proponents have argued that the convention would be restricted to the single subject of a balanced federal budget. Both sides are wrong, for two reasons.

First, it is true that the 55 Founding Fathers who met in Philadelphia did not amend the Articles of Confederation or rewrite them. They exercised the power of the people and wrote an entirely new document.

But unless the critics of an open convention have some reason to believe that Americans have become much less honest, iintelligent or dedicated than they were in 1787, then every attack they make on the idea of a new convention applies with equal force to the original one and the document it produced (which they claim to defend).

It is likely that a new convention would abandon such principles as no taxation without representation? The First Amendment freedoms? The separation of powers between Congress, the president, and the Supreme Court? The separation of powers between the federal government and the states? Trial by jury? Due process and equal protection of the laws? The preservation of ultimate power in the people themselves?

Do the critics really think a new consitution convention would throw out two centuries of experience and abandon the basic principles of our government, rather than simply make amendments to reestablish citizen control of the federal government?

The second reason the critics are wrong in the ratification process. Whatever such a convention proposed would be nullity until accepted by three-fourths of the states. Anyone who believes that 38 states could be persuaded to ratify the rejection of our basic freedoms simply does not believe in democratic government.

Obviously, much would depend on the character of those selected to attend a constitutional convention. The 55 men who gathered in Philadelphia were farmers, merchants, shippers, inventors, writers -- a cross-section of the occupation of the day. Some were wealthy, some paupers. Some were intensely practical, some philosophers of the body politic. They represented all of the major political and ethical views then existing in the United States.

With two essential changes, what we should hope for is the convening of a similar cross-section today. The changes, of course, are that women and all racial groups would be represented. The major hazard to avoid would be the election to the convention of any substantial number of the existing politicians who have created the problems the convention seeks to solve.

Fortunately, the processs of choosing delegates to the convention is calculated to produce a meeting like the original one.

The delegates would be selected state by state. All states now have provisions for electing delegates to a convention to rewrite their state constitution. Most states have provisions for electing delegates to ratification conventions. Both sets of laws provide that anyone can file for election and that the vote be conducted on a nonpartisan basis.

Experience with state conventions has shown that nonpartisan groups which stay out of ordinary politics become very involved in the effort to elect the most honest, most able candidates to a constitutional convention. The worst danger of a new convention would be the adherents of any political party sought to use to entrench their party position for years to come. But if the election process for delegates is like the one already in place, people who are capable and independent in their thinking, like a majority of Americans today, would be the ones most elected to attend.

We can easily find, if we care to look, several hundred men and women today who offer the blend of practicality and philosophy of a Benjamin Franklin. We will not find them in the halls of Congress or on the cover of Time magazine or on the evening news with Walter Cronkite. They will not be people whose names are household words or whose faces are easily recognized. But they are there.

If it is the feeling of the people that their federal government has become oppressive and irrational, it is their right to redress the balance. After all, our very first national flag was a rattlesnake with the motto, "Don't tread on me."