The Immigration and Naturalization Service has for the second year in a row asked Congress for permission not to spend $1 million on a post card registration program that the agency believes is worthless.

In these budget-slashing times, the bill would seem a sure winner. But then, it seemed a winner last year, too -- until Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) torpedoed the bill in retaliation for the refusal of a Republican House member to permit last-minute passage of several minor pieces of legislation.

Virtually everyone agrees that the 30-year-old program, which requires a foreigner to report by post card every January his name, address, country of origin and date of entry with the Immigration Service (INS), is a waste. That is because, INS officials say, those aliens who do mail in the post-cards almost always notify the INS of address changes when they occur anyway.

INS officials also say that while 5 million foreigners do file annually, millions foreigners do file annually, millions more do not. The efforts of the INS to keep track of the many foreigners who enter the country is compounded by the millons who visit -- more than 163 million entries were recorded last year alone. Many who enter legally as tourists never leave simply vanishing into the general population.

In addition to those those legal, recorded entries, millions more enter illegally and presumably have little reason to mail in post cards tipping off the INS to their whereabouts. It is estimated, for example, that there are 3 million Latin Americans alone who are in this country without permission.

"It's an expenditure from which there is very little, if any, public benefit or benefit to the government," said INS spokesman Vern Jervis.

Passage of the measure would leave the INS with no annual registration program, although immigrants would still be required to register upon entry to the country and to notify the agency of any changes in address.

This year, the agency has asked Congress not only to kill the program for next year, but also to authorize the INS to stop processing post cards received this year, thereby saving still more money.

Each January the INS finds itself swamped with millions of the post cards, which are distributed through local post offices. To handle the flow the agency must hire a private contractor -- at an annual cost of about $540,000 -- to process the cards.

It costs the INS an additional $500,000 just to organize the program, an effort that includes seeing to it that 15 million post cards are distributed to thousands of local post offices. This year, many post offices did not receive the cards, so foreigners were advised to register by letter. As a result, if the INS is forced to tabulate this year's census, it will have to sort through tens of thousands of typed or handwritten notes.

On top of that, the postal service billed the INS last year for $3,106.21 to pay for those cards that were mailed unstamped.

"During our efforts to track down Iranian students last year, we found out that there were about 60,000 in the country," Jervis said. "but we received only 30,000 post cards from Iranian of all types. That shows how effective the program is."

Last year's INS proposal, which included additinal proposed cuts of $1 million in unrelated programs, when Thurmond -- at the time the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and now its chairman -- objected to the committee's consideration of the bill after several personal bills he supported were not approved by the House.

A Democratic congressman, willing to support Thurmond's bills to get the INS bill passed, rose a beg permission to consider Thurmond's legislation out of turn, a request that needs unanimous consent of those House members present.

But in a surprise move, former Maryland Republican Rep. Robert E. Bauman, apparently unaware that fellow Republican Thurmond's support for the INS bill hung in the balance, objected. The Democrat explained that a guid pro quo was involved.

"Surely the gentleman jests," replied Bauman, who refused to withdraw his objection, forcing Thurmond to carry out his threat.