It is hard to believe, when you look at the budget totals, that there could be $600 billion worth of problems in this country that require a federal fix. But the claims on the budget add up to considerably more. So how is the country going to provide for its military and social needs, and balance the budget at the same time?

It may not. But one place to start wuld be with a very difficult change in the way that we all have organized ourselves over the years to get what we want out of the government for social needs. The so-called "iron triangle" -- a rigid and not very efficient set of relationships for maintaining the status quo in federal social efforts -- has been built into the system.

These are strong three-way relationships that have grown up over time among the congressional subcommittees that oversee a program, its executive branch administrators and the single-focus constituency groups defined as beneficiaries. Surprisingly often, the two federal partners fall into the habit of viewing the state or local program officials as their constituents, and therefore end up making program changes to help out the administrators rather than the ultimate intended beneficiaries.

In the venerable Rehabilitation Services program, for example, the precise nature of the state bureaucracy established by the federal statute is defended at least ferociously by the program's congressional patrons as its record of service to the handicapped.

Moreover, the Rehabilitation Services Administration was moved recently to the new Department of Education as a price charged by the program's congressional sponsors for support of the new department. Why?They judged that the program's administrators would be more powerful in a fledgling department than at HEW.

These triangular setups have weathered a number of administrations and reorganization efforts, largely because they are so mutually satisfactory to the participants. Each member of the triad has something -- political base, money or organization -- that the others find useful. For years it was Congress, despite its members' having to run for re-election every few years, that was the more nearly "permanent" branch of government: committee and subcommittee chairmanships often stayed in the same hands for years. Also, the federal, state and local program operators are generally permanent civil servants.

So it is that the business of running large segments of federal domestic programs has been going on largely outside the power of any president or Cabinet secretary, much to the frustration of political officials who had been led to believe that they were in charge.

In the management of these programs, moreover, the key has been to enlarge one's piece of the action -- as distinguished from concentrating on the direction of the enterprise as a whole. For years the easiest way to mask the fact that all contestants in this competition for federal money have not been winners has been inflation, precisely the mechanism we used in the economy as a whole. Inflated budget figures, like inflated salaries and wages, make it look at first glance as if everyone had come out ahead.

But the country is changing. The membership of Congress is turning over rapidly -- more than half the members of the House of Representatives have arrived since 1974. The rising level of uncertainty in the economy and in foreign affairs is causing many Americans to be less comfortable defining themselves as members of narrow-purpose constituency groups sparring with one another over who gets marginally bigger slices of the pie.

Recent pressures and events both abroad and at home may now be bringing us more together as a citizenry. And, conceivably, the effect of this may be to generate the tremendous heat it will take to melt down the iron triangles that protect old social programs from outside inquiry and review.

A large part of the passion in the current budget argument is generated by attempts to weaken these traditionally powerful alliances. With luck, some progress will be made. And eventually the time will come when a joint reorganization effort -- with congressional committee realignment and executive-branch changes planned in parallel -- can be realistically considered.

The programs we now have -- expensive, redundant and badly planned -- are the result of the old way of doing things under a political system designed to divvy up funds. The challenge now is to develop a system with the coherence to put things together.