At the National Bureau of Standards, Edgar V. Leyendecker runs a $475,000 program that is trying to find ways to improve the structural design of buildings and bridges so that they can withstand the shock of an earthquake.

"Our goal is to develop information that leads to the improvement of building codes and standards," Leyendecker said. "Although most codes generally reflect ideas that are safe, there is enormous room for improvement." The project, he says, eventually could lead to savings of billions from earthquake damage.

But despite the program's promise of cost-effectiveness, the Reagan administration has recommended turning it over to state and local governments--as well as scaling back the U.S. Geological Survey's efforts to set up an earthquake forecasting system to mitigate the hazards.

"At a time when the experts are predicting a major earthquake in California, the Reagan administration is proposing significant cuts in the federal earthquake program," said Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), chairman of the California delegation's Ad Hoc Task Force on Earthquakes. "In natural-disaster situations, we either pay now or we pay later."

So far, the response on Capitol Hill to proposals for reauthorizing the Earthquake Hazards Reduction Act has been to reject most of the administration's recommendations. The committees responsible for reauthorizing the earthquake programs already have voted to restore the cuts, and the appropriations committees are in the process of doing the same.

The government now spends $64 million on earthquake-related programs at USGS, the standards bureau, the National Science Foundation and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is supposed to coordinate the other three agencies' work.

For fiscal 1984, the administration proposed eliminating the funds for the program at the National Bureau of Standards and cutting the Geological Survey's $35 million by 17 percent. But it proposed increasing funds for earthquake programs at the National Science Foundation by $2.3 million and at FEMA by $600,000. Cuts overall would total $4 million.

The Geological Survey's reductions would require the agency to cut back its development of an earthquake warning system by about 25 percent, according to John Filson, director of the earthquake hazards program.

USGS director Dallas L. Peck said, however, that he couldn't support a major investment in an earthquake prediction system at this time.

"Despite our continued research and our initial efforts at earthquake warning, we do not issue earthquake predictions and advisories on a routine basis," Peck said. "To do so would require a significant increase in our scientific understanding of earthquake processes and in addition, a major investment in equipment, data transmission lines and computers."

Still, Peck said, "If earthquakes are considered to be the failure of a mechanical system--the Earth's crust, under strain--then there is cause for hope that reliable and useful short-term earthquake predictions can be made."

Congress has been reluctant to cut back these programs for just that reason. Some members also think the programs would bear fruit if FEMA were coordinating the efforts better.

At one Senate hearing, Lowell Dodge, head of the General Accounting Office division that studied the government's earthquake programs, took FEMA to task for not even giving the earthquake program its own phone number, "as symbolic as it may seem."

Dodge said that there was no "institutional presence somewhere for . . . other agencies, officials at the state level and persons in the private sector to turn to when they have a question."

But Richard Sanderson, director of FEMA's natural hazards division, said that the agency has "renewed vitality" and is now prepared to coordinate the programs. In response to Dodge, he said, "FEMA doesn't have a telephone number dedicated to any disaster program . . . . The people in the communities affected know who I am simply because I make myself known and my program known."

Dodge also said that agency managers had "not provided qualified and sufficient staffing for the program." But Sanderson said FEMA's program employs 16 people, who he said are "fully qualified." In the future, the agency plans to have a scientist from the Geological Survey work out of its offices.

Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee on science, also criticized FEMA for its failure to produce a five-year plan for the earthquake program that was due almost two years ago.

Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) acknowledged that "no act of Congress will prevent an earthquake . . . but this act can mitigate the human and economic consequences."