The House has been given a best-of-both-worlds defense appropriations bill that purports to make much bigger cuts in costs than in programs. That gives grist to both sides in the defense debate. The Pentagon's critics see it as proof there is always extra money to be found in the defense requests. Congress has appropriated more than $1.3 trillion for defense in the last six years; the defense budget has doubled; the department has in its accounts more than $250 billion in unexpended and $50 billion in unobligated funds; and in this context the $10 billion at stake in the bill is almost trifling. But others see the bill as proof of the opposite proposition that Congress will always gloss over the hard decisions in favor of having it both ways. The Pentagon says there is no way to make the contemplated dollar cuts without eventual program cuts as well. It is one of those arguments in which both sides may be right.

The bill would leave the department with $292 billion in new spending authority this fiscal year. That is the same as last year and the same as the House approved in three earlier votes on defense this year -- but about $30 billion less than the president requested, $10 billion less than contained in either the congressional budget resolution or the defense authorization bill, and $10 billion less than it is estimated the department will need to keep up with inflation.

Democrats had threatened to hold up the authorization bill unless this $10 billion was taken out of it; it was finally agreed to use the appropriations bill as the vehicle instead. Most of the $10 billion was found by reestimating costs. Inflation has been lower than expected in each of the last few years, and inflation allowances in defense bills have been too high; the Appropriations Committee picked up several billion dollars by correcting these allowances. Some major weapons systems seem likely to come in under estimate for other reasons, and the committee scooped up these sums too. It also picked up about $1 billion by virtue of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger's decision to cancel Divad, the Army's divisional air defense gun. The committee cut only a few other weapons out of the bill on its own initiative. The notable ones are the Air Force's AMRAAM air-to-air missile, which has broken all cost barriers, and new binary nerve gas munitions, which are not so much a cost item as a policy issue.

What this bill does more than anything else -- and more than its price tag might suggest -- is defer. Everyone agrees that this is a time of transition for defense, that the big budget increases of the first Reagan years are over, and the question is: to what will they give way? If Congress decides as it did in this year's budget resolution and authorization bill to allow the services only enough each year to cover inflation, or only a little beyond that, it will have to kill or stretch out any number of procurement programs now under study or under way. But that, it appears, will be next year's problem.