The House Ways and Means Committee voted yesterday to give up one of its oldest, and possibly most meaningless, political cudgels - the power to set periodic limits on the size of the national debt.

By a vote of 23 to 5, the panel approved legislation that would transfer that essentially routine function to the new congressional budget process, to be included in the annual budget ceilings Congress sets.

The process of pushing through formal debt-ceiling legislation has been a seasonal ritual for the Ways and Means Committee for as long as anyone can remember - and that members welcomed, until recent years.

The exercise always awas symbolic, since realistically Congress simply couldn't refuse to allow the government to continue borrowing when the old-ceiling expired. But because the bill had to pass, it gave the panel extra clout.

In recent years, however, Ways and Means members learned a painful truth about political cudgels: They easily can be turned into boomcrangs if those who wield them don't watch out.

Under more liberal floor procedures enacted recently. House members began using the debt-ceiling measures as hostages themselves, tacking an outrageous legislation and wreaking havoc with serious Treasury operations.

Finally, the Ways and Means Committee decided it had had enough.

If yesterday's legislation passes, Ways and Means and its sister Senate Finance Committee no longer would have to worry about twice-a-year bills to raise the ceiling on the national debt. It would be part of the budget process.