Before President-elect Ronald Reagan and his colleagues start searching for federal programs to cut back, they might want to take a look at the ones about to get under way. t

A new survey by the Department of Health Human Services, mentioned in the Oct. 30 Federal Register (page 71877), relates to an upcoming government grant program that you could easily imagine the Reagan clippers nipping in the bud.

The Register notice asks for public comment on a planned "National Survey of Spousal Abuse" to be undertaken for HHS' Office of Human Development.

The survey calls for the extended questioning, by telephone, of 5,000 women to "provide new data on the extent and seriousness of spousal violence against women in the U.S."

Why is the federal government going to gather this data? An HHS official working in the program said the information is needed to determine how to distribute $65 million in a three-year grant program that is about to be approved by Congress. She hopes the study will provide not only hard figures on instances of wife abuse, but also "the services people turn to" in such situations -- agencies that might be worthy recipients of federal funds.

Wife beating is an ugly social problem. But it seems a bit odd that a government agency still needs data on the extent of the problem when both houses of Congress have approved a sizable grant program to meet it. w

Ironically, the national survey itself may face more difficulty in getting approval than the legislation. By law, the Office of Management and Budget must approve all government questionnaires, and sources at OMB say the spouse abuse study already is cosidered controversial.

For one thing, the sample of 5,000 women which, according to the proposal, is to provide "reliable new data" on abuse, applicable to all women in the country, is to come in two parts. The first 2,500 are to be selected from a national sample of women who are "married to or living with a male partner"; 2,400 more (it's never made quite clear what happened to the remaining 100) will come from a national sample of married women on active military duty or married to male military personnel on active duty.

The Department of Defense, according to the proposal, will deliver to the survey-taker the required military sample, including "names, sex, Social Security number and complete unit of assignment address." The sample of 2,400 will be evenly divided among the four services (600 from each), although the Marines have only one-third as many service personnel as the Air Force and Navy, and one-fourth as many as the Army. In addition, each service's sample will be split between officers and enlisted personnel (300 in each category), even though there are generally eight times as many enlisted personnel as officers.

There are roughly 18,000 Marine officers. The 300 interviews of women Marine officers or wives of Marine officers in this survey will carry the same weight as the interviews of 300 Army enlisted women or wives of enlisted men, who total roughly 757,000.

The proposed interview form also is bound to be questioned. For example, the caller/interviewer is to begin the survey of women in the civilian public by saying it is "a study about women and their family life." The caller to military-related women is to describe it as "a study for the Department of Defense on the family life of women in military families." The true purpose of the survey, to gather data on "spousal violence against women," is never disclosed.

Once the caller/interviewer has recorded some basic family data, the woman being questioned is to be told her name will never be revealed and then is advised "the purpose of this study is to learn about the way family disagreements are settled."

The questions on settling family disputes involve reading a list of 18 alternatives ranging from "discussed an issue calmly" to "used a knife or fired a gun." Each telephone interviewer is to read that list several times, once asking the woman being interviewed to recall how her parents handled disagreements, then asking which of the listed actions she employed and finally which her husband or "partner" used. Only in cases in which the man used violence is the interviewer to go on and find out what happened as a result of eight types of violence, ranging from "threw something at you" to "beat you up," passing through "slapped you" and "kicked, bit or hit you with a fist" on the way.

When the legislation authorizing grants for wife-beating programs passed the Senate, 46 to 41, last September, and went on to a House-Senate conference, opponents argued that although domestic violence was a serious problem, there was real doubt that another bureaucratic layer was needed to handle it. Some opponents stressed that the program was putting the federal government too far into family life.