What a difference a war makes.

Last year, Congress and the administration slashed $621 million from veterans' benefits as part of a cost-cutting agreement. And political infighting stalled a deserved cost-of-living increase for some 2.2 disabled veterans and their survivors.But with the outbreak of war in the Persian Gulf, there has been a veritable stampede of veterans' legislation. More than 100 bills have been introduced for veterans. They include major new death benefits; expanded aid in housing, education and medical bills; assistance to help veterans pay home loans; limits on mortgage rates; and a variety of other programs.

In fact, the flood of bills indicates not only a willingness to meet the needs of veterans - always the case in wartime - but also a cynical climbing on the patriotic bandwagon for political purposes.

No one can argue with the obligation of government to provide benefits to survivors of American troops killed in the gulf war and to take care of returning veterans where needed.

But this is no reason to rush into sharply expanding existing veterans benefits, creating new benefits and making all such provisions retroactive, applying to troops sent to the gulf last summer - with no regard for the cost.

The budget for veterans is now $33 billion a year. With minor adjustments, there are enough existing programs to take care of veterans' needs produced by the Persian Gulf war.

Under the pay-as-you-go deficit-cutting agreement last year, new spending programs must be paid for by cutting other programs or raising taxes. This could create a situation that pays for glamorous new benefits by draining available funds from older programs for veterans.

Some members of Congress are arguing that any increased spending on veterans benefits is exempt from the budget agreement because the benefits are part of Operation Desert Storm - not included in the budget package.

That view is short-sighted. In effect, it says "don't count the cost." But benefit programs have costs that will go on long after the Desert Storm is over. Those long-term expenses must be taken into account.

Maybe it's too much to expect Congress to show some restraint when members can see all kinds of political advantages to championing veterans' benefits even though veterans' organizations are not lining up behind very many of the proposals.

Congress should step back and consider what is really needed to help veterans and the long-term financial effect of any new or expanded programs. That would be far more helpful than trying to make political hay out of the "support the troops" feeling that prevails across the nation.