THE TRUTH FAIRY perched on John Edward Porter's shoulder as the congressman spoke to the House two weeks ago. "Mr. Speaker," the Illinois Republican remarked, "as the vote rolled up the other day in support of a Cabinet-level position for veterans, I heard from everyone around me on the floor what a terrible idea it was. Yet practically every member voted for it. Why?"

Rep. Porter, one of an ultralight brigade of 17 who had the guts to vote no against the herd of 399 who bellowed aye, answered his own question. "At a time when deficits have reached crisis proportions and courage to make the tough decisions is needed more than ever before, the Congress, Mr. Speaker, is obviously still gripped in the craven fear of special interests." Of course the interests are all worthy, he said, and "Congress has done a magnificent job" of responding to them, "but we have lost the bottom line." "Business as usual has brought us to where we are," the congressman lamented.

He is right, of course. Rarely do you find it so unsparingly said. The lonely few who resisted this bill were an odd match of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans -- Mo Udall and William Dannemeyer side by side. Each had his own reasons, but many had the sense, as one of them put it, that the House was voting "to institutionalize a constituency that feels it has a right to draw on the Treasury," was setting itself up, even more than it is set up now, to be the object of "organized, systematic advocacy." "This is not a veterans' issue," said one of the 17, Steve Bartlett. "It's a veterans' groups' issue."

No one disputes that the country has a special obligation to those who are sent to fight for it. The wounded and their families and the survivors of the dead must all be cared for. The majority who return unhurt must also be made whole. But at some point the government has no greater obligation to this latter group than to citizens generally. That is what the veterans' programs do not recognize; that is partly why they are so fat. Elevating the Veterans Administration into a department will only make them fatter, by adding to the long ton of clout behind them. The vote in the House is a measure of how great that clout already is.

The president, who campaigned in 1980 against the Carter education and energy departments as symbols of an overgrown and complaisant government, surprised even his own aides and endorsed the bill before the House voted on it. No backbone there as an election year approaches, either. It comes down to whether the Senate will also bow and scrape, or can summon the courage to vote no. "It's time to end business as usual on Capitol Hill," Mr. Porter said the other day. Who can fail to understand that