A State Capitol hearing room was jammed last week with irate architects and engineers, lined up to denounce proposed reforms in the way Virginia governs their professions.

What made them steam was not some bureaucrat's scheme to saddle them with more rules and red tape. It was just the opposite -- a proposal to deregulate much of their industry.

Strange as it might seem in this supposed bastion of free enterprise, the two groups wanted nothing to do with it.

One architect compared state laws regulating his profession to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and warned "anarchy" would result from their repeal. An engineer indignantly contended that the proposed reforms were more worthy of the flaky, radical California of Gov. Jerry Brown than of George Washington's conservative commonwealth.

Another architect vowed the measure would sink faster than the Titanic if ever brought before the state legislature.

When the smoke cleared, proponents admitted their deregulation proposal had no chance of passage in its present form despite strong support from building contractors and the state attorney general's office.

It was a small setback for a little-noticed crusade that has slowly built momentum in Virginia and the nation in recent years. The reformers' goal: To eliminate as much government regulation as possible from professions ranging from hairdressers to driver-training teachers to psychologists. The advocates of change say that decreased regulation will increase competition and ultimately cut prices paid by consumers.

As in the case of the Virginia architects and engineers, it is an effort often bitterly contested by the professions themselves -- many of whom have the political clout to kill such reforms. They argue that a return to laissez-faire could leave the public defenseless against untrained or unscrupulous practitioners. Critics contend the real motive behind their opposition is fear that it will open their previously closed professions and cut into their profits.

"They're like medieval guilds . . . [that seek to] maintain their privileged positions regardless of market forces," Federal Trade Commission Chairman Michael Pertschuk has said. He cites an FTC study showing state-licensed television repairmen in Louisiana charged 20 percent more than such unlicensed workers in the District of Columbia for similar-quality service.

In Virginia, more than 40 different boards and committees have been established over the years to regulate professions ranging from doctors and nurses to harbor pilots, barbers, real estate agents and sewage plant operators.

Almost all of the boards are dominated by members of the profession the agencies are supposed to regulate, a situation that critics contend has led to inevitable conflicts of interest and law enforcement. In the last 10 years, for example, only three of the state's 12,830 licensed architects, engineers and land surveyors have lost their permits because of disciplinary actions.

One of the state's biggest culprits, according to critics, is the hairdressers' board, which seven years ago boosted the amount of training required for a hairdressers' license to 2,000 hours. At the time, a majority of the board's members owned private hairdressers' schools, which collected fatter tuition fees and profits from the rule change.

The State Board of Barbers Examiners, the hairdressers' counterpart, requires that the curriculum for trainees include ethics and history lessons on "high ideals in the barbering business," "proper attitude toward tipping," and the "importance of barbering and its relation to civilization."

In virtually every instance in recent years, the boards were set up by the Virginia General Assembly at the behest of the professionals themselves, not the supposedly victimized public. When given the legal authority, many of the boards have proceeded to mandate educational and testing requirements that have effectively limited access to their professions.

"Ironically, licensing, which began 70 years ago as a way to protect the public from sleazy operators, has been converted into an endorsement that's prized and cherished by the licensees because it makes them members of an exclusive group," says Lynn Hopewell, vice chairman of the state Board of Commerce. The board is a citizens group established three years ago to oversee all of Virginia's nonhealth boards and cast a skeptical eye on licensing requirements.

The board's spiritual leader is Ruth J. Herrink, a Richmond Republican who has served as director of the state Department of Commerce for eight years. Herrink, who is well aware of the political muscle of some of the professions she jousts with, keeps a low public profile and insists that her goals are consistent with the less-is-best governmental philosophy of her boss, Gov. John N. Dalton. She has managed to hang on to her job through three administrations despite several campaigns to oust her.

"Ruth's always under a lot of political heat, so she downplays her role," says Paul Pottinger, executive director of the National Center for the Study of the Professions in Washington. "But she's made Virginia one of the top five in the nation when it comes to occupational reform."

One of the first groups Herrink took on was the hairdressers. When board members refused either to revoke their increase in training hours or step down, she persuaded then-governor Mills E. Godwin to seek emergency legislation abolishing the old board and setting up a new one. As for the 2,000-hour requirement -- the equivalent of a year's work -- it's still on the books.

The deregulation process can sometimes be costly. Herrink's department spent $38,000 earlier this year for a consultant's "task analysis" of hairdressing and barbering. The object: to convince the two groups that it was time to cut-back on their regulations. But both groups have vowed a fierce battle against any effort to eliminate licensing and the hairdressers have even set up a campaign chest, though they won't say how much money is in it.

"We're nice people and we don't want to start any trouble," says Herman Burgess, president of the 1,500-member Virginia Hairdressers' and Cosmetologists' Association. "But anyone who tries to take away our licenses will find out just how strong we are."

One state official laments in response: "Mention hairdressing to these people and reason flies out the window."

Officials have a similar response toward the architects and engineers, who came out in force last week. The proposal they oppose would downgrade their licenses to "certificates," which are voluntary and not required in order to practice a profession.

"Seven states, including Texas, offer certificates and their buildings aren't tumbling over left and right," says Hopewell, a Northern Virginia engineer who drafted the proposal.

Hopewell contends the present law is so tightly drawn that hundreds of housing and electrical contractors who do their own design work on relatively simple projects are technically breaking the law. He says his plan would simply recognize what has become the status quo in Virginia.

But the architects and engineers don't see it that way. Some have even accused Hopewell of conducting a personal vendetta against their professions. It's a charge that he scoffs at, but he admits the professionals may have the clout to stop his proposal dead in its tracks.

"As the process develops, I'm sure the people who don't like the proposal will pull all their arrows out of the quiver with both the governor and the legislature," Hopewell said.