IN JANUARY 1973 the House created a Select Committee on Committees and, for the first time in a generation, embarked upon wholesale reorganization of its committee structure. Less than two years later, having been offered more reorganization than it bargained for, the House rejected the Select Committee's recommendations and contented itself with a few modest reforms, mostly procedural rather than structural.

Congress Against Itself is a chronicle of the Select Committee's brief life and troubled times, written by two political scientists who served on the panel's professional staff.The authors readily concede that "the internal organization of Congress is not, and perhaps never will be, a burning issue for the general public." But any major battle with in the House is instructive, and the Select Committee - whatever its other failings - certainly managed to provoke a major battle.

Things began auspiciously enough. Pressures for reform were plentiful, and leadership support (particularly from Speaker Albert( seemed secure. The jurisdictional boundaries of House committees had last been changed in 1946; modernization appeared a logical cure for congressional ills that ranged from policy fragmentation to low public esteem.

As a vehicle for reform, a select committee offered several advantages. Unlike a standing committee, its membership could be divided equally between Democrats and Republicans, lending a bipartisan spirit to a potentially touchy task. The committee would have a carefully limited assignment and a conspicuously limited lifespan: two years, and two years only, to produce an acceptable reorganization scheme.

Under the chairmanship of Richard Bolling - a forceful but controversial leader whose persistent reform-mongering had made him something of a Congressional dissident - the Select Committee applied itself industriously and finally produced a sweeping reorganization proposal that made a good deal of sense.

Basically, the Select Committee's plan involved substantial jurisdictional swaps among committees, centralizing responsibility for any given policy area within a single panel. Some new committees would be established (Energy), some abolished (Internal Security), and some split into manageable parts (Education and Labor). The goal throughout was to minimize overlapping jurisdictions and equalize committee workloads - prerequisites, in the authors' view, to coherence and efficiency in the House.

Yet one person's reform is another's gored ox, and the Select Committee's proposal generated immediate controversy. The AFL-CIO opposed the plan because it downgraded Merchant Marine and Fisheries and separated Education from Labor; Ralph Nader and the Sierra Club fought it because environmental matters would be jurisdictionally yoked with (and presumably trampled by) energy concerns. To the authors' chagrin, the chairmen and staff of many subcommittees threatened by the reforms also engaged in "reverse lobbying" - whipping up their constituent interest groups to oppose reorganization.

The Select Committee lacked the resources to withstand a siege. Speaker Albert, who apparently viewed reorganization primarily as a check on Ways and Means chairman Wilbur Mills, lost enthusiasm once Mills self-destructed. The bipartisan composition of the Select Committee prompted charges of a sell-out to the GOP. Bolling's limited mandate made it impossible to cushion the reorganization plan with porcedures for reassigning committee posts and protecting vested senjority rights. The automatic termination of the Select Committee meant that its recommendations could be stalled to death. And Watergate, of course, diverted the energies of many Select Committee members just as it diverted the needed attention of the press.

In the end, the Democratic caucus stepped in, set up a competing panel, and made sure that the House adopted just enough reform to avert creation of a campaign issue. When the new Congress convened in 1975, however, the caucus quietly implemented many of the Select Committee's proposals, demonstrating either that the House is not fundamentally opposed to "reform" or that nearly one hundred freshmen were enough to force a rethinking of the issue at a less pressured moment.

The authors of Congress Against Itself discuss the tactics of the Select Committee's opponents in a manner free of rancor, and they admit that the Committee's proposal had conceptual as well as political weaknesses. (For example, it would have strengthened the Rules Committee, the bane of most reformers.) Although they regard the House rejection of the Select Committee plan as ill-advised, their intent is to use the fate of a specific reform package to illustrate the process of reform generally, and here they succeed admirably.

What makes the book especially valuable is that the authors take care to place their subject in context, explaining the history and logic behind the House's internal organization as well as the need for change. In the process, they manage to refute much of the conventional wisdom that contributes to Congress's poor public image. (Free copies should be given to newspaper editors.) Despite its title, Congress Against Itself is basically a respectful document, and one to persuade most skeptics that while reform is essential, respect is deserved.