It is bad for morale to see all the civilian departments agonizing in the clutch of the budget grinder, while the Pentagon basks in the sweet dilemma of deciding how to spend perhaps $7 billion more this year than it could have expected from Jimmy Carter and $25 billion more next year.

True, this is what a good part of the election was about. The people have spoken, and there is no thought here to conduct a mental coup. As you think about it, it is noteworthy that the new dispensation is almost everywhere accepted, out of discretion if not conviction. Only on the left-of-liberal left is there audible dissatisfaction with the reshaping of priorities that came out of the last election.

Still, the country may be losing a rare opportunity. The government department that in the informed consensus could most profit from budget discipline is being spared it by a political decision. The Cabinet officer, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, who in the informed consensus is best fit to run a government department through a wringer, is not being required to give high priority to that task.

It is not merely that more money for defense is, as Sen. John Stennis put it in head-shaking wonderment the other day, "in the air." At his confirmation hearing, "Cap the Knife" was asked precious little about the stuff of which his reputation as a strong budget and management man is made. And the secretary himself, rather than leading from his strong suit, appears to be calling attention to his weak one, which at this early point -- no doubt things will change -- is high policy. He has offered statements on several political issues on which, some of his friends feel, he might better have waited for his newly chosen policy lieutenants to unpack their files.

To be sure, "Cap the Knife" is working hard on the budget. But when The Post's George Wilson asked him this week if there were areas where big money might be saved, he said, "Not really," and listed a few areas -- contracting work to civilians, reductions in administrative travel and in the number of consultants, "some base realignments" -- amounting only to nickels and dimes.

So a precious chance to build a more efficient defense establishment may be going by the board. This should be of as much concern to hawks and others who feel the nation's defenses must be jacked up, as to doves and those who feel that we already have just about enough. How might the job be done?

Broadly speaking, there are two ways. The first is to restrict the missions of the armed forces (stop defending Europe, for instance) or to change some of the traditional ways of performing those missions (junk strategic bombers). Tremendous savings would result. But, it merits aside, this approach is scarcely in the cards for this administration.

The other way to save big bucks has to do with the management of defense spending programs.

I should pause here to say I am one of those who, in the new austerity, must make amends for having ignored this dismal subject over the years. At the same time, I have become persuaded, as have many other defense observers whom I know, that great savings are there to be made in the Pentagon if someone will but make them.

As it happens, the advent of a good, management-minded, anti-wage, all-business Republican administration has created an atmosphere in which people with a fair claim to expertise in the Pentagon budget are coming forward with their ideas. I am speaking here of outsiders. But it would be surprising if insiders, too, had not sensed that this is the right time to make a move.

On this page on Feb. 3, for example, Paul J. Andrews, who formerly worked on contracts and claims at the Federal Highway Administration, wrote what struck me as a brilliant article on "sole-source" weapons procurement and other contracting atrocities costing the taxpayer, he said, billions and billions of dollar a year.

Or take Gordon W. Rule, the man who made waves by attacking Navy cost overruns. He is circulating a letter he wrote to Weinberger in which he states that the military is almost devoid of demonstrable cost-consciousness and that no program exists today to ensure cost discipline in the Defense Department. Rule concludes: "It should be obvious that existing inefficiencies and lack of proper management in defense spending will most surely multiply with the greatly increased defense billions to be appropriated and spent."

Where is Cap the Knife now that we really need him?