George Washington vetoed only two bills. Gerald Ford vetoed 64. Ronald Reagan challenged Congress last week to cut spending and warned, ''I will use the veto if necessary to keep them within the budget!''
The Democrats expect some gains after the midterm election Nov. 2. Emboldened by that expectation, the party is already laying plans to challenge the President with a militant lame-duck session beginning Nov. 29. Mr. Reagan has vetoed only nine measures so far. But the number of vetoes during the second two years of the Reagan incumbency almost certainly will increase, and the period could be a turbulent one.
Democrats plan to thrust economic recovery plans at Congress immediately at the beginning of the lame-duck session - in which the old Congress, the 97th, continues to operate throughout December. Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, told the Monitor that he will offer a series of emergency economic proposals the minute legislators return next month and won't wait for the new Congress.
Chances of legislative action (and possible Reagan vetoes) will increase in the next Congress if Democrats make election gains as some expect. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. of Massachusetts and Senate minority leader Robert C. Byrd (D) of West Virginia want quick action.
In a prestigious panel discussion last week sponsored by the Joint Economic Committee, five prominent liberal economists said they are preparing a liberal agenda to counter the Reagan program. With unemployment the highest in 40 years at 10.1 percent, the Reuss-O'Neill-Byrd faction wants bold federal intervention instead of a Reagan ''stay-the-course'' program.
Mr. Reagan has support. ''The worst is over,'' declares Richard Rahn, chief economist at the US Chamber of Commerce. ''I believe we will have real economic growth in the final quarter of this year.'' President Reagan, in his television and radio address to the nation last week, supported this.
The President described a five-point program of his own. When Congress returns, he told the nation, he will hold to his ''pledge'' to save $3 in outlays ''for every $1 in new revenues.'' Second, he urged passage of the proposed constitutional amendment for a balanced budget, which he charged is opposed by ''a minority of representatives who prefer continued big spending.'' Third, he pledged to go ahead with ''regulatory reform'' which would give greater authority to the states. Mr. Reagan's fourth proposal is for passage of the pending ''Enterprise Zones Initiative'' intended to revive declining inner cities. And for the fifth, he urges passage of the pending Clean Air Bill which, he says, ''while protecting the environment, will make it possible for industry to rebuild its productive base and create more jobs.''
Besides specific proposals, President Reagan continues his overall program for lessening the power of the federal government and forges ahead with a series of economic steps for reviving prosperity. He declares: ''We can do it, my fellow Americans, by staying the course.''
But the five liberal panelists were emphatic in their challenge to the stay-the-course Reagan program.
* Walter W. Heller, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under the Kennedy administration: ''What we need now is more than just the letup in monetary stringency. . . . We need an active pursuit of lower rates of interest before things get worse. We've traded double-digit inflation for double-digit unemployment.''
* Ray Marshall, labor secretary under the Carter administration: He advocates an ''industrial development bank'' like the Roosevelt Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and a reexamination of military expenditures.
* John Kenneth Galbraith, Harvard University economist: ''We have had a period of an unprecedented experiment in economic policy. It has failed.''
* Willard Wirtz, labor secretary under Kennedy and Johnson: ''We are spending far far too much on suicidal munitions.'' He declared, ''The defeat in the Senate of the minimal public employment bill adopted by the House seems to me, and I believe to most people, simply wrong.''
* Robert Eisner, Northwestern University: He attacked ''those who would spend trillions of dollars in the acceleration of a hopeless arms race but cannot find the funds to invest in our own people.'' He added ''if the Federal Reserve does not change course of its own will, the administration or Congress must force it to do so.''
Refuting the anti-Reagan view of the liberal economists, Sen. Robert W. Jepsen (R) of Iowa charged that the economic panel was one-sided. Earlier administrations had helped build up the present recession, he said.
Chairman Reuss says a ''recovery program'' will be placed before Congress by Nov. 29, and indications are for a protracted traditional struggle between the White House and Congress. With the aggressive mood of the Democrats, Mr. Reagan may need his vetoes. Reuss, for example, declares that Congress will return with ''the highest number of unemployed since the Depression and with our basic public assets lying in ruins; our streets, schools, water systems, ports, railroads - our whole infrastructure - falling apart.''
President Reagan, whatever the election result, will continue to hold the upper hand in most cases through the veto, which requires a two-thirds majority in both houses to be overridden. Veto battles are a recurrent feature of American government. Republicans currently hold the Senate and Democrats command the House, but party loyalties are weakened in each case.