When it comes to buying new furniture, the federal government seems to have trouble kicking the habit.

In the final 15 months of the Carter administration, the government managed to trim furniture spending by 75 percent after the Office of Management and Budget imposed a moratorium on new purchases and got agencies to draw up plans to monitor their spending.

Budget Director David A. Stockman continued that effort, lifting the moratorium but requiring the agencies to adopt tougher plans.

But in fiscal 1982, when the agencies were basically left to regulate themselves, they spent nearly as much as they did before the purchases came under scrutiny three years ago, and six times what they spent in fiscal 1981.

Vincent D. Burns, director of the General Services Administration's Furniture Commodity Center, said there were two main reasons for the rebound: President Reagan's moves to build up the civilian side of the Defense Department, which accounted for 86 percent of fiscal 1982 furniture purchases, and "a backlog of orders" from federal agencies waiting to buy new desks, chairs, couches and file cabinets.

But in this cost-conscious administration, OMB and GSA officials alike say they're not responsible for the increase.

As the government's housekeeping agency, GSA manages warehoused furniture and contracts with suppliers for office furnishings at discount prices. "But, in this process, we're only the conduit," Burns said. "We can't control an agency's purchases."

OMB, meanwhile, expressed surprise over GSA's most recent numbers. "We hadn't heard those figures," said an OMB official who monitors furniture procurement.

"We expected that during the regular budget periods, we would ask agencies to continuously check the costs they had had for various things, including consultants, travel and furniture," the official said. She said OMB thought that the agency management plans would have had "a more long-lasting effect."

OMB spokesman Edwin L. Dale Jr. questioned why GSA hadn't moved to fill that void. "I presume they could do something if they wanted to," he said.

GSA officials, wanting to avoid a squirt-gun fight with a staff office of the president, declined to comment. But a former Senate investigator who probed GSA's furniture buying practices in the past said: "There is simply no commitment to stopping agencies from spending money on furniture. That has to come from OMB."

The purchase of new furnishings became a political hot potato in 1979 when Sen. Lawton Chiles (D-Fla.) took his subcommittee on a tour of various GSA storerooms chocked-full of usable tables, chairs and desks. Subsequent hearings prompted then-GSA administrator Rowland G. Freeman III to issue a moratorium on purchases by GSA. Four months later, then-OMB director James T. McIntyre expanded that throughout the government, until the agencies drew up plans to control purchases.

In January, 1981, Stockman cut furniture budgets and ordered agencies to put even tighter controls in place. However, OMB let that order lapse at the end of the fiscal year. One OMB official monitoring the program said that, because OMB has decentralized its review, "no one has tallied up how much was actually saved."

When buying furniture, federal agencies are supposed to pick out items from Supply Schedule catalogs published by GSA. The catalogs -- similar to commercial brochures for office furniture -- detail items that manufacturers have offered to sell the government at a price worked out with GSA. The items range from carpeting to desks, from kitchen appliances to classroom furniture. From the items offered, agencies are supposed to pick the cheapest one that meets their needs.

Agencies that don't find what they need in the catalog can seek a waiver from GSA. In the past year, about half of the requests have been granted.

Last April, GSA did open a refurbishing center in Franconia. Since then 8,450 pieces of furniture have been restored, at an estimated savings of $688,000, according to a GSA spokesman. The agency has also tried to reduce its warehouse inventories to cut costs, instead allowing agencies to receive items directly from the manufacturer.