Last fall, with the federal government teetering on the edge of a financial shutdown because of the lack of a budget, Congress and the White House hammered out a compromise designed to cut $500 billion from the budget deficit over the next five years. Yet the deficit is now growing faster than ever before - at the rate of $1 billion a day.

By putting together their budget package, Congress and the White House reduced the deficit by only one-fourth of what the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law required. In the process, they also junked what was left of the Gramm-Rudman law for at least five years.Even worse, the deal did not reduce federal spending at all. The package actually increased domestic spending by 12 percent. Experts from the Congressional Budget Office have testified that the deficit for 1991 will be higher than anything the country has seen before and some years have been horrifying at best.

The nation has managed to escape some of the worst consequences of runaway deficit spending because the economy has grown steadily since the early 1980s. But with a recession coming on, Americans may finally have to come face-to-face with the consequences.

A recession will mean less tax revenue for an already bankrupt federal government and less money for unemployment benefits and other needs arising from an economic slowdown.

At long last, the economic chickens of deficit spending may be coming home to roost - and everybody is going to get hurt.

What happens when the government can't even pay the burgeoning interest on the national debt - one of the biggest items in the budget - and can't borrow any more from nervous foreign investors, who may want back the hundreds of billions they've already loaned?

Members of Congress, looking at the projected figures, are getting increasingly worried. Trying to put together a budget this year will be an economic nightmare. The first casualty will be the five-year budget package reached last fall. That flimsy deal will have to be rewritten from the ground up and with real and painful consequences this time.

Because it wants to avoid another debacle like the one last fall, Congress also is looking at overhauling the entire congressional operation, something that hasn't been done for nearly 50 years. There will suggestions for changing rules, streamlining operations, trimming back bloated staffs and other long overdue changes.

Whether Congress can reform itself and also produce a realistic budget is open to question. It may be too little, too late.

Congress has failed miserably in the past to make tough decisions. But there is a new sense of fear in the House and Senate - both over an impending budget disaster and the growing impatience of the public.