The real significance of the Gramm-Rudman amendment to balance the federal budget by 1991 is that it heralds the end of a historic 10- year era of congressional ascendance at the expense of the presidency following Watergate.

Under Gramm-Rudman, Congress must reduce the federal deficit to specified levels each year until it reaches zero in 1991. If the targets are not met, the president is empowered to make across-the- board cuts in spending by impounding -- failing to spend -- money appropriated by Congress. This would amount to a tacit admission that its great experiment in budget self-discipline has failed and cannot be corrected without a more active role being played by the president.

In the 1970s, Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress revolted against what they perceived as the abuse of excessive presidential authority. This concentration of unchecked presidential power in foreign affairs was exemplified by the loss of 50,000 American lives in Vietnam without a congressional declaration of war, and in the domestic arena by the practice carried to its zenith by President Nixon of impounding money duly appropriated by Congress.

Congress wrestled power from the presidency in one arena after another.

*The War Powers Resolution of 1973 severely limited a president's ability to commit U.S. combat forces abroad without congressional approval. As recently as 1983, Congress set a deadline on President Reagan's deployment of Marines in Lebanon.

*Congress passed more than 200 legislative vetoes following Nixon's resignation, permitting it to block presidential and executive branch decisions by action of only one house of Congress and, at times, one committee.

*Congress refused to restore the authority Nixon exercised in 1971 to use wage and price controls to control inflation, and specifically eliminated the authority President Carter exercised in 1980, imposing credit controls on borrowing to reduce high interest rates and dampen inflationary pressures.

*Congress limited presidential discretion to encourage trade with foreign nations through provisions such as the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the Trade Act of 1974. It limited the president's discretion to sell arms abroad when he deemed it vital through the 1976 amendment to the Arms Export Control Act, setting up the bruising confrontations with Carter over the sale of F15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia and with Reagan over AWACs planes to Saudi Arabia and the recent arms package to Jordan.

But, most fundamental was the confrontation with Nixon over the power of the purse strings. Nothing is so deeply embedded in the Constitution as Congress' authority to direct the ways money should be spent. When Nixon tampered with this authority by withholding spending when he deemed it necessary, Congress fought back hard. Congress repeatedly supported suits in federal court to force Nixon to spend the money it appropriated. It then passed the Budget Reform Act of 1974, one of the most important bills in modern times.

The act strictly limited the president's power to impound appropriated funds through a deferral procedure (the president could defer spending until the end of a fiscal year unless Congress blocked him) and recision process (in which the president could refuse completely to spend money only with specific congressional concurrence).

More important, the act ended the president's monopoly on budget information. Congress established its own budget process to permit it to order the nation's priorities rather than rely solely on the president's and to establish internal controls over spending. The act created the Congressional Budget Office to provide the same economic and budget information for Congress that the president received from his Office of Management and Budget.

Several events, culminating in the Gramm- Rudman amendment, have led Congress to give back to the president much of the budget power it fought so hard to capture in the 1970s.

First, Republican control of the Senate for the first time in a quarter-century combined with the 1980 and 1984 Reagan landslides over Carter and Walter Mondale led to an unusual degree of Republican unity over the desire to cut domestic spending, regardless of the obstacles or procedures necessary. Thus, even now Republicans in the Senate and House want to further strengthen the presidency's hand over spending by giving the president "line item" veto authority, so he can veto specific spending measures without having to veto an entire appropriations bill.

Second, the degree to which an environment existed to cut social spending, even at the risk of sacrificing congressional prerogatives, was graphically displayed by passage of the Gramm-Latta amendment in 1981. That amendment used a little known "reconciliation" procedure to bypass the normal congressional budget process and committee structure to give the president an up-or-down vote on the House floor on his sweeping budget cuts, and in so doing Congress handed the presidency a potent weapon to reduce the federal role in society.

Third, Congress weakened its capacity to battle the presidency on equal grounds by its inability to make its own budget process work efficiently. The Budget Act added a layer of complexity to the already labyrinthian congressional procedures. Battles once fought in the authorizing and appropriating committees were now also joined in the budget committees. Congress has not been able to complete its complete budget cycle and clear all appropriations bills by the beginning of the fiscal year since 1977, and has had to fund the government by continuing resolution, like an automatic pilot, carrying over spending levels from the prior year rather than shaping clear priorities for the future. This year, because of the protracted budget struggle, not a single appropriations bill was passed by Congress by the start of the fiscal year on Oct.1.

The Gramm-Rudman amendment would go still further by handing the White House the very impoundment powers Congress took away during the Nixon era and pass the burden to the president of making the final spending cuts rather than doing so itself. The Gramm-Rudman advocates attempt to refute charges that the bill would transfer an excessive degree of power to the presidency by pointing to the automatic across-the-board nature of the reductions the president must make if the deficit goals are not reached. But, in fact, the president retains significant authority in determining which expenditures are "controllable," and therefore subject to reduction if the automatic expenditure cuts are triggered.

Also, the president might invoke his capacity as commander-in-chief to prevent defense programs from being included in any automatic cutbacks. Although Gramm-Rudman makes controllable defense expenditures subject to automatic cuts, it is unclear that any court would challenge a president's decision to exempt certain defense expenditures from cuts on national security grounds.

Even if Congress were determined, as it should be, to reduce the federal deficit, it need not transfer such significant responsibilities to the presidency. It could streamline its own budget process by going to a two-year budget cycle in which the first year would be devoted to setting two-year budget targets and the remainder of the time could be devoted to policy making. It could give itself the power it now gives the presidency to make across- the-board cuts if its deficit targets would be exceeded. It should seriously consider telescoping its three-stage budget-authorization-appropriation process into a more manageable two-stage procedure. Instead, it has ceded this power to the president and made him a direct participant in Congress' own budget process, thereby measurably strengthening the presidency and eroding the very control it sought through the 1974 Budget Act.

When these self-inflicted congressional actions are combined with the victory the presidency received when the Supreme Court ruled legislative vetoes unconstitutional in 1983, the Reagan era will be seen as one in which the pendulum of power began to swing back to the presidency for the first time since Watergate. Congress and its congressional budget process may never be quite the same again if Gramm-Rudman passes.