Two years ago a national poll showed that more than 80 percent of the public believes the federal government imposes too many regulations.

This goes a long way toward explaining why Republican leaders of the next Congress asked the White House to declare a moratorium on new regulations for three months to a year.But what the public wants evidently doesn't matter much to President Clinton, who rejected the request as too sweeping. Though he didn't say so, the chief executive no doubt deems a moratorium too partisan, too, since his fellow Democrats are shunning the idea.

Never mind that the Bush administration considered a similar moratorium on the grounds that it would provide time for every part of the federal government to see if the public interest couldn't be served in less onerous ways than by unspooling more red tape. Never mind that Clinton could and should have suggested a compromise under which a blanket moratorium would be modified with exemptions for new rules that would demonstrably enhance public health and safety.

Instead, a line has been drawn in the sand. In effect, the next Congress is being challenged to accomplish by law a moratorium that could more quickly and easily be achieved by executive order from the White House.

Such a fight is sheer folly. The excesses of federal red tape are so well known that the case for a moratorium should be beyond dispute. Literally hundreds of thousands of the regulations already are in effect, at a cost to Americans of up to $860 billion a year. And now the bureaucracy is said to be preparing to unleash some 5,000 new rules just before the new Congress can convene and start carrying out its mandate to redirect public policy. Though companies get the initial impact, their increased cost of doing business is passed along to the public in the form of higher prices for goods and services.

Many of the rules are essential. Many are foolish and frivolous. One regulation, for example, fined a dry cleaner for not posting a list of employee injuries - when in fact there were no injuries to report. Another rule required detailed safety data sheets for such supposedly dangerous materials as chalk, dishwashing liquid and even air. For nearly two decades, the Environmental Protection Agency forced mainland firms to test water for a pesticide that was used only on pineapples in Hawaii. Cities have been forced to undertake expensive water- and air-quality projects that added little or nothing to the health of their citizens.

The list of outrages goes on and on. The bottom line is that the war against federal red tape should become a continuing campaign, not something that stops and starts with each change in the control of Congress or the White House.