President Reagan Tuesday signed legislation creating the Department of Veterans Affairs, telling vets they deserve "a seat at the table of our national affairs."

In signing into law the bill establishing the 14th Cabinet-level agency, Reagan made an election-year exception to his oft-stated opposition to expanding the size of federal government.At the conclusion of a speech to the National Defense University at Fort McNair in the District of Columbia, the president said that the nation's debt to its military men and women "does not end the day the uniform comes off."

"All of those who have served in America's uniform deserve the nation's thanks," he said.

Reagan noted that the legislation has been in the works for 13 years, and said that "it's something that I've been looking forward to for a long, long time."

"This bill gives those who have borne America's battles, who defended the borders of freedom, who protected our nation's security in war and peace, it gives them what they have deserved for so long - a seat at the table of our national affairs," he told a crowd that included Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci; Adm. William Crowe, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and congressional sponsors of the bill.

"I like to think that this bill gives Cabinet rank not just to an agency of government, but to every single veteran," Reagan said. "Welcome aboard!"

Throughout his political career, Reagan has railed against "big government" in Washington. He has used numerous speeches during the current presidential campaign to warn that Democrats would return the nation to the era of "Big Brother" and "Big Government."

But neither Reagan nor Vice President George Bush showed any such qualms this year about the bill creating a new Department of Veterans Affairs, the 14th Cabinet-level agency and one devoted to pursuing the interests of a select group of individuals.

The House and Senate also paid election-year homage to the nation's 27 million veterans, with both chambers giving easy approval to the bill earlier this fall.

In approving the change, the House rejected arguments that setting up the new department would lead ultimately to increased spending and admonitions that it was engaging in an election-year ploy.