IT IS FAR EASIER for members of Congress to talk about ending the nuclear arms race than it is actually to do something about it. Put in more practical terms, it is easier to support and vote for an abstraction like a freeze resolution that calls on the Soviet and American governments to do something than it is to actually do something yourselves.
A lot of members of Congress who say they want a freeze nevertheless refuse to pick out one or more of the questionable nuclear weapons programs in the administration's fiscal 1983 defense budget and work to stop or at least limit it.
In the House, for example, the freeze resolution will be brought to the floor next ims, if not the June 1948, IWednesday for a vote, and with 183 sponsors and at least 200 votes in hand, its supporters believe they have a good chance of passage.
But what about the $177 billion defense authorization bill that was on the House floor last week? Was there any attempt to pull those pro-freeze members into a coalition to work to cut back or defeat any particular new weapon?
"No," said the aide to one of the congressional freeze leaders. "We haven't focused that much on the authorization bill and there is no link between the two, really."
What about pro-freeze legislators going after the money that specifically pays for research, development, testing and building nuclear warheads? If they tried it -- and they haven't -- this would not be easy. The hard work of legislating is trickier than the passage of grandiloquent resolutions.
For openers, because of a fluke of legislative history, the nuclear warheads program is handled these days by the Department of Energy, though it will be transferred to an even more unlikely home in the Department of Commerce if President Reagan's reorganization plan is approved.
Thus, if a member today wants to follow legislation authorizing development or production of nuclear warheads, he has to become familiar with the Department of Energy's "national security and military applications of nuclear energy authorization act of 1983." That measure is handled by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and comes up separately from the fiscal 1983 defense authorization bill.
The facts of legislative life would also put a member really interested in controlling nuclear weapons up against this: Funding for the nuclear warheads building program is part of the energy and water development appropriations bill, which is best known on the Hill as the "pork-barrel" money bill since it contains the funds for all the Corps of Engineers public-works construction projects. That measure is appropriately handled within the Senate and House Appropriations Committees by the subcommittees on energy and water development.
The House Armed Services Committee marked up its nuclear warheads authorization bill in May, but it has not yet reached the floor. There are three legislators on the committee who are also sponsors of the freeze resolution, but they made no realistic effort to control these programs. Instead they just voted against the entire bill, which nevertheless passed easily.
The appropriations committees have yet to act on the nuclear warhead program. Subcommittees in both houses have held up on approving a reprogramming of 1982 funds that would pay for advanced production facilities for a new neutron 155-millimeter artillery shell. But there is no sign of any organized effort -- or any congressional enthusiasm -- to try to halt this neutron weapon, which would be the third in a new generation of battlefield weapons, none of which could be sent to Europe in the current political atmosphere.
Despite plenty of theoretical opportunities to do so, the nuclear freeze advocates have not tried to attack the bills that authorize and fund new nuclear warheads. But some of them have not been above playing a little politics for the folks back home to show their pro-freeze stance doesn't mean they are for unilateral disarmament.
Perhaps the best example of this ploy occurred last May when the Senate, in a surprise vote, went against President Reagan's defense program and authorized the Air Force to keep the aging 52 Titan II intercontinental missiles in operation for an extra year.
The liquid-fueled Titan IIs have been scheduled for retirement since 1967, but have been kept in service in hopes that the Soviets might someday negotiate a swap of Titans for some of their own big missiles.
The Titans are big. With their nine megaton warheads (the equivalent of nine million tons of TNT), they carry one-third of America's land-based megatonnage. However, within the past four years the Titans have been increasingly prone to accidents because of their highlyune 1948, I toxic fuel and their aging metallic bodies. In addition, they have little cement hardening because of their ancient construction; they would have to be fired before or during a Soviet first strike to avoid being among the first missiles destroyed.
Because they are expensive to maintain and because their mission could be handled by less vulnerable missiles, the Reagan administration approved a plan promoted by Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger to retire the Titan II missiles beginning in October 1982.
But in May, 12 liberal Democratic senators joined 42 colleagues to overturn Weinberger's decision to retire the Titan II. All 12 liberals have cosponsored the Kennedy-Hatfield nuclear freeze resolution. In the May vote, they approved an extra $80.2 million in the fiscal 1983 defense authorization bill to keep all the remaining 19-year-old Titan IIs operational for another year, and maybe even beyond that.
Why would Democratic senators who favor disarmament and believe in freezing production of new nuclear weapons vote to keep operational an old ICBM with a nine-megaton warhead that was designed to destroy cities and was originally scheduled by the Kennedy administration to be retired more than 10 years ago?
"They were angry at Weinberger and wanted revenge for Republicans calling them and Jimmy Carter 'unilateral disarmers' when they did away with the B-1 bomber four years ago," was the way one veteran Senate aide described what happened.
Senate Armed Services Committee member J. James Exon (D-Neb.) led the floor fight for the Titan extension. He teed off on the retirement plan, pointing out the irony that "the Great Communicator," as he called the president, who "said essentially that the United States of America was inferior to the Soviet Union in ICBMs," was turning around to "suggest we unilaterally begin the disarmament of America. . . ."
Exon went on to ask, "If we are in the middle of a window of strategic vulnerability, why would we dismantle any nuclear weapon system before we have to, in the absence of a bilateral arms reduction agreement?"
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) was one of the Democratic liberals who voted with Exon. According to a Cranston aide, the Democratic whip believed it was time "to hold the administration's feet to the fire. Either you have it one way or the other."
A plausible enough formulation -- were it not for the fact that freeze advocates like Cranston have also been having it both ways all year.