The drive for a constitutional amendment to mandate a balanced federal budget represents "a revival of the Know-Nothing party in this country" and would "devastate" social programs for the poor and elderly Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. said yesterday.

Califano told the House Budget Committee that his department's proposed $199.4 billion budget for fiscal 1980 is "down to the marrow of the bone."

If Congress wants to save money, he said, it should "look elsewhere" -- to other departments or to the federal-state revenue sharing program.

Califano made the comments when Committee Chairman Robert N. Giaimo (D-Conn.) asked what the effect would be if a constitutional amendment were passed and HEW had to seek to cut a $11.2 billion from its budget -- its proportionate share of the overall deficit of $30 billion in the national government budget.

"It would devastate those programs... savaging the elderly," the poor and the ill, Califano shot back.

In likening the drive for the amendment to the Know-Nothing movement, Califano was comparing its supporters to members of the virulently antiforeign and proslavery movement of the middle 19th century whose adherents refused to give explanations for their stands but simply responded to questions with the phrase "I know nothing."

Califano also defended his proposals to eliminate certain Social Security benefits like the $255 burial benefit and the monthly support payment for 18- to 21-year-old students whose father has died, as simply an attempt to hold down costs of the $115 billion program by wiping out "fringe benefits" that "are not parts of the central system."

Giaimo and Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said they would like to see approval of these Social Security cuts, totaling $600 million in fiscal 1980, as well as hospital cost-containment proposal that Califano claims would save $1.7 billion and the proposed reductions in school impact aid. All have been bitterly criticized, and Gephardt said he thought none would be approved.

Rep. Barber B. Conable (R-N.Y.), however, said Califano's proposed Social Security cuts were merely "peanuts... it's so modest as to be virtually pointless... If you were talking about $10 billion, it might be worth considering."

Califano -- stressing that ninetenths of his department budget is for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare and social services -- repeatedly returned to the theme that the great area for potential savings is in controlling medical costs and wiping out fraud and maladministration throughout his programs.

While Califano was testifying before the budget committee, the House Ways and Means public assistance subcommittee agreed to seek a $900 million addition to President Carter's request for welfare programs. The biggest item would be a $300 million package of fiscal relief for high-cost welfare states like New York and California through a rewriting of the federal matching formula.

The subcommittee also recommended raising the general federal grants for assorted social services from $2.9 billion to $3.1 billion.