Rep. G. William Whitehurst (R-Va.) was erroneously described in The Post yesterday as a House leader last year in the use of official funds to buy meals for himself while in his district. He said yesterday he spent only $10.63 in official money that way last year. The money to which the story referred -- $805 -- was spent on meals for constituents and guests in Washington, he said.

That relic of the faraway past, the free lunch, has resurfaced on Capitol Hill with a new name -- the official expense allowance.

It is not only lunch that is free. Rented cars, first-class air fares, charter flights, meals in fine restaurants, entertaining of constituents -- all a part of official spending -- make today's House member indistinguishable in many ways from the business executive and the tax-deductible lifestyle.

The difference is that this is public money. A hefty chunk of approximately $40 million the House will spend on office operations this fiscal year will be for the cushy perquisites of public service.

A eview of 1979 expense records of the House is not unlike tripping through a great mail-order catalogue of life's amenities. If it exists, it is almost certain that a memmber of the House has bought it -- under the rubric of "official" purpose, of course.

Some examples:

Food. Rep. Barry Goldwater Jr. (R-Calif.) and his staff were leaders in entertaining visitors and favor-seekers, mostly over lunch, spending $2,744 from his office account. Many other members regularly wined and dined themselves, their staffs or constituents here and at home. An even greater number, however, saw no need to entertain or feed themselves at public expense.

Rented Cars. Dozens of members kept full-time leased cars in their districts, ostensibly for official travel, although rental fees varied widely. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.) spent $513 a month for a Pontiac Bonneville, while Jerry Patterson (D-Calif.) got along with a subcompact Dodge Omni for $128 a month. Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), who has a limousine here, had a $300-a-month station wagon waiting for him at home. Clarence J. Brown (R-Ohio) needed two rented cars to get his work done in the district.

Tokens for Constituents. A flattered voter is probably a certain voter, so many members spent liberally on items of flattery. Carroll Hubbard Jr. (D-Ky) spent $1,012 on sympathy cards for the bereaved, for whose names he searched in newspapers. About a fourth of the members used their official accounts to buy coffee and soft drinks for visitors, with the $903 spent by Robin L. Beard (R-Tenn.) tops for the year. Jerry Huckaby (D-La.) was even more inventive -- he spent $3,454 from his account on "free" blood pressure checks for constituents.

Self-Advertisements. Much of the members' spending fell into an uncertain gap between public service and self-promotion. It cost Nicholas Mavroules (D-Mass.) $750 to letter his name in gold leaf on a window at his Salem office. Tom Bevill (D-Ala.), starring as narrator, spent $1,550 to produce a film on the legislative process. Michael L. Synar (D-Okla.) and Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.) did the same thing, only for $1,300 and $1,250, respectively. Jon Hinson (R-Miss) paid $32 to engrave his name on a man-of-the-month plaque given him by fellow freshmen. Baltasar Corrada, the non-voting delegate from Puerto Rico, bought poster-size photos of himself for $1,380.

Postage Stamps. The game of Post Office on Capitol Hill isn't the one played by adolescents. The House version allows members to charge thousands of dollars of stamps to their office accounts, even though all their "official" mail goes under the frank -- that is, postage-free. But with the stamps, the unofficial mail still goes "free," in effect, and the member of Congress is relieved of paying for personal mailings from his or her own pocket. The biggest stamp-buyers last year were Bill Nichols (D-Ala.) $8,500; Trent Lott (R-Mass.), $4,575; Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Calif.), $4,140, and Hubbard, who, you recall, had all those sympathy cards to mail, $3,363.

Sympathy cards, letters to school graduates, dry cleaning, insurance, biographies, portrait photos, newspapers, films and books, soda and coffee for visitors, clipping services, lawn chairs, calender cards, signs, mobile telephones, message beepers, hired cops, flags and other fillips are part of the growing cost of House operations.

These and other items, all apparently acceptable by House rules, are reported routinely by House members -- and published quarterly in exhaustive fashion -- as part of the expense of keeping constituents served and districts represented.

In the context of a congressional budget that now is more than $1 billion annually, the $40 million for House office operations is relatively minuscule. Much of that -- an average of about $90,000 a member -- is consumed by travel to home districts, district office rentals, telephone bills, lodging, printing and other basics. Salaries and committee expenses come from other accounts.

But some of the office-operation expenses fall into a gray area between legitimate service, self-enrichment and promotion of incumbency -- terrain that the House Administration Committee, lord and master of expense accounts, is not keen on treading.

Rep. Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.), committee chairman, said that he and his staff review the expense vouchers in a sort of "ministerial" way.

"It is hard for me and the committee to make empirical judgements," he said. "I feel that each of the members should have a great deal of discretion and use their own judgement on what they consider necessary."

Discretion was helped along sweetly shortly after Thompson became chairman.

Previously separate accounts for items such as travel, stamps and the like were consolidated into one. As a result, members could budget their own expenses according to need from one lump sum.

The basic House allotment is $40,000, with more added according to a district's distance from Washington. A California legislator, for example, gets more than a New York legislator because his travel and telephone costs are potentially higher.

With that kind of honey pot available, along with the discretion to spend within a set of liberal rules, many a member who revels in assailing government Big Spenders is traveling his own subsidized easy street.

The House spending rules are in fact tailored after the same Internal Revenue Service guidelines that determine the tax-deductibility of private corporation expenses, according to John E. Lawler, finance officer of the House.

A critic of the House system is Andrew Jacobs Jr. (D-Ind.), one of the chamber's most frugal office-account users, who worries a good deal about public opinion and the image of public officials who spend freely on themselves.

"The $60,662 salary we now make puts us in the nation's top 1 percent of income-earners. Which is to say that the servant makes more than 99 percent of the masters," Jacobs said. "How many people who go first class in the United States are paying for it themselves? Few, I would judge -- and it is bad statecraft for the House to operate this way."

One of the features of this statecraft is its individually -- the judgement factor Thompson mentioned -- and the disparities it creates in the amounts many members spend for essentially the same things.

Consider the automobile.

More than 50 members charged year-round rental cars to their accounts, with prices ranging from Garcia's $513 a month to Patterson's $128. Robert W. Daniel Jr. (R-Va.) leased a 1979 diesel-powered Cadillac, at $458 a month, and found a way to claim he was saving money while he provided transportation for himself and his family here and at home.

Thompson's committee authorized Daniel to drive the car between here and his district, which he said came out cheaper than round-trip air fare every week, in part because he was buying his diesel fuel in bulk at lower-than-retail rates.

The legislators may claim 20 cents a mile for traveling in their districts, but Robert L. Bauman (R-Md.) came up with a variation. Bauman, always a critic of fiscal excess, collected $4,525 as reimbursement for his daily 154-mile round-trip between the Capitol and his home in Easton, Md., enough to buy a new subcompact car if he wished.

Other near-to-Washington members, Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), and Beverly B. Byron (D-Md.), also collected mileage for their regular weekend trips between their Baltimore and Frederick homes and the Capitol . Others who live nearly as far away did not collect mileage for the daily drives.

A key point, one aide said, in the differences in members expenses is that "the office of each member of Congress is a fiefdom . . . What you get into is clear differences in what each member perceives his job to be."

The expense reports of Jerry Huckaby and Carroll Hubbard Jr. provide insights into perceptions of the job of the legislator.

Their spending reflects a gradual change in voters' and members' minds that a member of Congress is something more than just a lawmaker. He or she is viewed as an ombudsman, a glad-hander and errand-runner in Washington as well.

Huckaby found something exciting and different as a way of literally taking his voters' pulses. He spent more than $3,454 to promote blood pressure checks for his constituents.

Administration Committee rules don't cover this kind of approach to public service, so Huckaby sought a ruling.

"We checked with the committee and they said it would be okay if the service was for the poor and elderly," one of Huckabys aides said. "We found it was a good service to perform. Ours is a poor rural district with not much in the way of public health facilities."

Volunteer nurses administered the tests in Huckaby's mobile office, which he leased for $450 a month. When it was over, Huckaby treated the nurses to a $307 dinner.

Huckaby's idea was symbolic of many of the "official" expenses of the House.

Thousands of dollars of these expenses fall into a gray area between official necessity and constituent gratification that produces handsome political benefits.

Much of Carroll Hubbard Jr.'s considerable name-recognition in western Kentucky is made possible by his office expense allowance.

Hubbard encourages mail, then answers every letter. He grieves with every mourner he can find. He congratulates every constituent who seems ready for a pat on the back.If they're around at meal time, he buys.

He blitzed 204,000 western Kentucky postal patrons with newsletters and questionnaires seven times last year. He churned out press releases and radio tapes by the score, telling what he had done lately for his 1st District.

He treated himself and several dozen constituents to lunch, dinner or breakfast. He chartered a plane to survey flood damage. He kept a leased car at home for $190 a month. He spent several hundred dollars on video tapes showing him on the floor. He bought 6,000 calendars (bearing his name), 400 congressional gift books and more than 5,000 sympathy cards for the bereaved, whose names were combed from newspapers. He spent $3,363 on stamps to mail the unofficial items not covered by his frank.

The catch is that none of this was paid out of his own pocket or from his campaign treasury. It came from his official office account.

"As much as the federal government spends on the foreign aid that my constituents complain about, I have no guilty conscience about spending money allotted to my office to keep my constituents informed," he said.

Many other members employ similar logic, but the result is essentially the same. Tax funds, either through the frank or stamps, cover the postage for every outgoing letter.

Hubbard's perception of the nature of his job was mirrored by the spending of many of his colleagues. One of the most common expenditures involved food -- meals with constituents or meals for the member when he was traveling in his district.

In the second quarter of 1979, as a random example, at least 74 members treated constituents, visitors or their staff assistants to meals.

The biggest spenders in the second quarter were Goldwater, with $1,202 in lunch and dinner expenses, and Charles H. Wilson (D-Calif.) who ran up a tab of $981.

For the year as a whole, Goldwater appeared to be the House's biggest entertainer-host, spending $2,744 on lunches and dinners, plus $1,359 on coffee, soft drinks and hot chocolate for visitors to his offices.

The explanation: "Barry likes to get things done during the day, so he takes a lot of people to lunch and our field representative does that also," said an aide. "Barry prides himself on entertaining constituents."

But Goldwater was not alone as a gracious host.Edward J. Derwinski (R-Ill.) appeared to be the only House member whose entertaining included payment of bills to Washington liquor stores in connection with feting of "official guests."

"As a rule of thumb," Derwinski explained, "any expense I have at home in the district I regard as political and charge it to campaign expense. Here in Washington, I consider it an official expense."

Derwinski's sociability put him in a preminent group of business-lunchers that included John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), California's Wilson, James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.), Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Don Young (R-Alaska), Stanley N. Lundine (D-N.Y.), Jim Santini (D-Nev.), Edward R. Madigan (R-Ill.), William Clay (D-Mo.), Hubbard and Louis Stokes (D-Ohio). After Goldwater, the biggest-spending host was Conyers, who paid $2,354 on lunches and dinners.

Stokes, Young, Conyers, Clay, Madigan, G. William Whitehurst R-Va.), Richard Nolan (D-Minn.), William F. Clinger Jr. (R-Pa.), Steve Symms (R-Idaho), Gerry E. Studds (D-Mass.) and Thomas G. Loeffler (R-Tex.) were among the leading spenders on food for themselves while in their districts. Stokes spent $801 on food, mostly for himself, although he reported one dinner with Cleveland constituents that cost $113.

Thompson commented on the food vouchers of a western congressman who regularly gets reimbursement for lunches that cost $2 and $3. "That's nickel and dime stuff," he said. "The only reason I go ahead and sign his vouchers is the hope that he'll develop a duodenal ulcer and go away."

Far from nickel and dime, however, is the matter of postage stamps. The frank, which covers official business correspondence, has the effect of making postage stamps almost unneeded in a congressional office.

Stamps are required for special delivery and overseas airmail letters and for the return of certain unfrankable items, such as tape cassettes mailed back by a radio or television station.

Under the House rules, other unofficial and personal mail not related to congressional business must be treated as a personal expense of the member. Yet many use their office accounts to buy stamps for unofficial mail.

The rules also extend the frank for 90 days to defeated or retiring members so they may wrap up final business matters. Despite that, the 1979 records show that at least 15 departing members took stacks of stamps ranging from $200 in value to $8,000 before closing out their office accounts.

"Unconscionable," is the way Thompson described such transactions, although his committee has not moved to stop the practice. Another member, who rarely purchases stamps, said, "You tell me the difference between that and stealing."

Retirees who bought stamps in the final days were F. B. Sisk D-Calif.), $8,800; James J. Delaney (D-N.Y.), $6,000; Robert L. Leggett (D-Calif.) $6,000; Robert N. C. Nix (D-Pa.), $5,500; Newton I. Steers Jr. (R-Md.), $5,000; John Young (D-Tex.), $3,500; Fred Rooney (D-Pa.) $2,000; John J. Flynt Jr. (D-Ga.), $1,650; Dale Milford (D-Tex.), $1,170; Joe D. Waggonner Jr. (D-La.), $750; Joe Skubitz (R-Kan.), $750; Michael T. Blouin (D-Iowa), $600; Robert C. Krueger (D-Tex.), $500; Ted Risenhoover (D-Okla.), $330, and W. R. Poage (D-Tex.) $200.

At 15 cents a shot, with his withdrawal of $8,800 in stamps, Sisk would be able to mail 58,667 first-class letters.

Steers, running now for the seat he lost in 1978, sent word through an aide that his $5,000 in stamps were put on his final newsletter to constituents, which he wanted mailed before he left office.

The aide said Christmas-season delays in the House folding room meant the newsletter might not get in the mail until Steers had left. A House Post Office Committee franking expert said if the delay were the fault of the folding room, Steers could have sent the newsletters under his frank.

Throughout 1979, incumbents dipped liberally into their office accounts to buy stamps, often in huge amounts. The leaders included Nichols, Lott, Lagomarsino and Hubbard; Robin L. Beard (R-Tenn.), $3,021; Glenn M. Anderson (D-Calif.), $3,000; Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), $2,725; Harley O. Staggers (D-W.Va.), $2,600; Daniel J. Flood (D-Pa.), $2,500; Charles C. Diggs Jr. (D-Mich.), $2,140; David Bowen (D-Miss.), $2,025; L. H. Fountain (D-N.C.), Clay (D-Mo.), Eldon Rudd (R-Ariz.) and John G. Fary (D-Ill.), $2,000 each; Henry S. Reuss (D-Wis.), $1,950.

How could Bill Nichols, who spent $8,500, use 56,666 first-class stamps?

Easy, said an aide to the congressman: "Radio tape returns [at 48 cents each], congratulatory letters . . . anything that's not frankable."

Easy. The same explanation applies to hundreds of other expenditures that members saw as necessary to keep their offices humming at full efficiency.

Many, for example, subscribed to newspapers from their districts and backed those up with clipping services. Thomas Petri (R-Wis.) appeared to be the most voracious reader, paying for 73 newspapers subscriptions, plus several others for magazines. He then contracted for $325 worth of clippings as well.

Other reading habits differed. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), a feminist leader, subscribed to a number of women's publications. Elwood Hillis (R-Ind.) subscribed to an Evans and Novak political newsletter. Les Aspin (D-Wis.) and Diggs bought copies of bestsellers. Diggs spent $10 more for "The Complete Pun Book." Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) who chaired the Nixon impeachment hearings, spent $40 on a book about Watergate. The reading of George Miller (D-Calif.) was a little more offbeat -- $30 a month for marriage and birth lists from Contra Costa County.

Photographs are important, too, both for sending to admiring constituents and for framing as keepsakes. Dozens of members charged personal portraits to their office accounts, but Mississippi's Jon Hinson showed a touch of class. His was the only portrait done by Bachrach.

Dozens more used their office accounts to pay for framing of mementoes. Bevill spent $21.75 to frame his J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon souvenir photos. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), whose 1979 framing bill was more than $360, had a $43 expenditure to mount and encase a pen from a presidential bill-signing.

There is a rule on items such as that, but the Administration Committee apparently raises few challenges. The rule says items of lasting value that cost more than $25 cannot be purchased from the office account.

But that did not deter Steers, an attorney, from spending $332 for six volumes, an index and a 1978 supplement to the Maryland code, which he took with him into retirement in Montgomery County. An aide agreed on the wording of the rules, but said, lest any one think Steers was making a last-minute purchase, that the lawbooks had been ordered in 1977.

A couple other wrinkles showed up in the 1979 records that suggest just how far the House has traveled in developing an economic conscience.

Such critics of federal deficit spending as Santini, Madigan, Gunn McKay (D-Utah), Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn.), Al Swift (D-Wash.), John J. Cavanaugh (D-Neb.) and Floyd Spence (R-S.C.) used their office accounts to pay the carrying charges on credit cards with which they charged expenses.

Madigan provided further proof. He rented a stopwatch for $5 to measure time distances between his prospective new offices and the House floor. Time is money.