Millions of tax dollars are being wasted each year because of mismanagement of federal government office furniture, an audit by the inspectors general of 17 federal agencies has concluded.

The 68-page audit, drafted over six months by government accountants, concludes that federal agencies have "done a poor job" of managing federal office furniture and that the General Services Administration "has been very remiss in its oversight responsibility."

"These inactions," the study says, "have resulted in confusion, inconsistency and mismanagement in the areas of furniture acquistion, storage and disposal."

The audit, made available to reporters yesterday at a public hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee on federal spending practices and open government, is the latest attempt by the government to discover just how much money it is wasting buying office furniture for federal agencies.

The latest investigations began last September, after The Washington Post reported that hundreds of dollars worth of usable tables, desks and chairs from the Agriculture Department were being dumped each day in government landfills near Lorton, Va.

Later forays to other area landfills showed that the departments of Health, Education and Welfare and Housing and Urban Development, the Army medical Command and several other federal agencies also were carrying truckloads of furniture to the dumps.

The audit found that federal agencies in the metropolitan area bought $1.2 billion worth of new office furniture over the last 10 years, even though $373 million worth of new or slightly used furniture was in storage.

Among its other findings:

Agencies have no management systems to determine what furniture they have on hand before buying new items. One unidentified agency purchased 900 desks to cover an increase in staff when it had 716 desks in storage and an "undetermined additional number being rehabilitated by a contractor."

In another agency, auditors found that there were so many chairs that they had never been counted. In fiscal 1978 and 1979, the agency bought 1,536 chairs and threw out 225, even though agency employment showed a significant decline. The auditors noted, "there were approximately three chairs for each headquarters employe."

Furniture purchases sometimes were "not predicated on valid determinations of need but rather on a desire to expend residual funds at year-end." In one agency, for instance, 92 percent of the total funds spent on furniture in fiscal 1979 were spent in the last two months of the fiscal year.

Regulations governing the furniture that can be purchased by top government officials have not been enforced. One office, again in an unspecified agency, spent $5,200 on "luxury items such as a custom-covered camel-back sofa, wing chairs and mahogany reproductions of 18th Century furniture. . ."

In another case, $35,000 worth of furniture was purchased in April 1979 for an executive whose office was stocked already. By the time the items were delivered, however, the official had left the agency. The furniture is now stored in a warehouse.

Federal agencies generally don't send furniture to be repaired; instead they buy new items while sorting or disposing of the items that could be fixed. One exception, the auditors said, had saved $98,500 by repairing 694 pieces of furniture rather than replacing them; another agency saved $217,000.

Sen. Lawton Chiles, D-Fla., the subcommittee chairman, said "The idea that the government would be ordering untold millions worth of new furniture while usable furniture is hidden away in a warehouse is incredible."

With the draft audit in hand, Chiles called in GSA administrator Roland G. Freeman III for a tough 45-minute grilling. Among other things, he asked Freeman why government agencies have spent $36 million on new furniture in the past four months despite a freeze imposed by GSA and then the Office of Management and Budget on such purchases. The freeze was designed to force federal agencies to use furniture stored in warehouses.

But Freeman and GSA federal supply service commissioner Thomas D. Morris asserted that the freeze was effective, that $60 million already had been saved this year, and that the $36 million went to purchase items supplied by blind, handicapped and federal prison workers who have exclusive contracts with GSA and to "necessary" projects such as the U.S. census.

Chiles said he will submit legislation to rescind $229 million earmarked for furniture purchases in the current federal budget.

"I'm ready to inconvenience somebody working for the government for a change," he said.

"I would suggest that you try to understand what you're doing," Morris retorted as Chiles gaveled the hearing to a close.