VETERAN Congress-watchers have often noted over the years the inspired way in which members of that body can record votes both for and against controversial issues in order to please all the constituent groups that may be after them. Until now, one of the more remarkable aspects of the 1981 budget-balancing efforts in both houses has been the straightforwardness of the debate, the apparent determination to be open about what is an what is not being done. It is therefore disappointing to find the Senate falling off the wagon in its mutually inconsistent votes on the oil import fee.

For those who missed it, the Senate voted to use $300 million in revenues from the oil import fee to offset $300 million in extra spending and still show the budget to be balanced. But a few moments earlier, it had voted to clear the way procedurally to vote against imposing the fee at all. The disingenuousness of it would not have been so apparent had not the vote been heralded as a "test vote" by Sen. Bob Dole, one of the leaders in the fight against the fee.

There are two problems interwoven here. One is truth in packaging. The Senate cannot have it both ways. The House, in comparison, took an honest position. Not having voted on the fee, it voted a balance without using those revenues, reserving any funds generated from the fee for a tax cut.

The second problem is one of energy policy. A 10-cent-per-gallon increase in gasoline prices will reduce consumption. Gasoline consumption has dropped since last year by more than 5 percent, clearly as a response to increased prices. It can be expected to go down again as a response to the oil import fee. The administration estimates that the fee would lower consumption by about 100,000 barrels of oil per day by the end of this year, and by about 250,000 in the long run. This is good policy. Whether it is invoked by a fee, as the president proposed, or by Congress as a tax, as some members of the House believes is necessary, at least this much should be done.

The fight over who has the authority to impose a fee (or tax) is threatening to submerge the real question, which is the wisdom of using price increases to lower demand for gasoline. One wonders why the members of the House who have sued -- so far successfully -- to enjoin the setting of the fee don't just go ahead and pass a bill to impose an oil import tax. We suspect that the president wouldn't complain, and the progress toward reducing consumption of foreign oil would be accelerated.