To be a Republican member of Congress has been to know that your party would never be in control. Politicians are people who gravitate toward power, and when you are never going to control Congress, a lot of the reason for being in Congress disappears.

Thus, the Republicans often have been obstructionist, fighting hard to keep the Democratic majority from implementing its agenda. In this capacity as critics, the Republicans have sometimes sounded shrill, have easily been pictured as backward thinkers and have rarely been given credit for legislative initiatives.

Washington is just now beginning to grasp what Nov. 4 meant in terms of the changes that are likely to occur in the temperament of Congress. Obviously, with the Republicans in outright control, which in the end will have a lot to do with whether they can claim credit for good economic management in 1982 and 1984.

Even in the House, where the Republicans are now only 25 votes short of having a majority, the atmosphere on this critical matter of holding down federal spending is going to be markedly different from what it has been in the past. Few House members will be anxious to have the reputation of profligate spenders in the face of this year's returns.

But if the budget is to be cut, one asks, what of the millions of Americans who must look to the federal government for some part of their livelihood? Will not these people be left without a friend in Washington, unable to cope with an economy that extracts its highest toll on the poor, the sick and the elderly? Will not the Republicans and the Reagan administration be held responsible for human suffering that could again re-form a constituency through which the Democrats would reclaim the power?

The answer to this signal question is going to tell a lot about whether the prospects of the Republicans for holding the power are long-term or merly a pause while the Democrats get their act together again.

It has always been assumed that to get the federal budget in any kind of sensible condition would require the elimination of vast areas of past federal involvement. Those who have become cyncial about whether the budget could ever be pared always chuckle as they ask, "Where would you like to start?" "Which programs would you like to eliminate?"

The truth of the matter is that it would not require the elimination of significant programs to reduce the budget. All that is required is to focus on the waste inherent in the tremendous duplication of effort in the government.

Just by way of a few examples, the federal bureaucracy employs a fantastic number of lawyers. If a true rendition of the work for which lawyers were necessary were completed, it would demonstrate that the government is tremendously overstaffed and might even be well advised to contract out a large portion of its legal work to private law firms on a competitive bid basis.

Computers are another big offender. Everyone knows that if you are going to make a computer economical you must see to it that it is being used at maximum capacity. Dead time on a computer is money-wasting time. Yet this rule is rarely followed in the federal government.

The same kind of case can be made for accountants, economists and a whole range of planners and experts. And that doesn't even allow for the billions that could be saved if the Defense Department wouls start moving to a more integrated concept for dealing with the nation's defense requirements.

It has taken 100 years for the federal bureaucracy to reach its present gigantic proportions. We never really decided to have a bureaucracy, only that the spoils systems could not be tolerated. Each presdient over the last century has contributed another layer as a momument to his own interests. Since no president has really trusted his civil service employes, each has taken care to set up some new office ro agency to deal with those things he felt most strongly about. After he departed, his creations remained, protected like a rock by the timeless layers beneath it and hardening soils above it.

You can't adequately diagram the federal government anymore. It doesn't make any sense. When you realize that approximately 50 cents out of every federal dollar is consumed by overhead expenses, it should be clear to everyone that we must do something about it before we are all consumed in the mere act of keeping it alive.

The Republicans have a real chance to do something about this problem. They will make a mistake if they simply try to cut programs. Let them find out how many lawyers they have working for them or how many computers are resting idle or see if they can't cut some of the wasteful competition among the military services.

Those who are not making improper use of federal benefits should be allowed to keep them. It is the federal government that must be trimmed. Those who are not responsible for the waste -- the poor, the sick and the elderly -- should not forced to pay for it. w