The rancorous debate over committee chairmanships that marked the opening of the D.C. City Council's fourth legislative session seems, for the moment at least, put to rest.

But the squabble brought to the surface a largely unspoken undercurrent of racial antagonism that still characterize District politics as much as it does city life itself, obscuring the pressing issues facing the local government.

The public agument was over whether Council Chairman Arrington Dixon should adhere to a seniority system in nominating committee chairmen, in the case the vacant chairmanship of the Housing and Economic Development Committee.

Proponents of seniority call it an orderly process that allows for easy, predictable transitions from one committee chair to another. They also point out that past councils have used seniority as their yardstick.

But Dixon and his council colleagues maintain that such a seniorty system unnecessarily restricts the powers of the council chairman to propose nominations. They point out past council's deviations from the seniority process -- like the appointment of Wilhelmina J. Rolark (D-Ward 8) to chair the public service and consumer affairs committee when she was only a freshman council member.

In his argument, Dixon raised the point that seniority systems in the U.S. House and Senate in the past had entrenched southern conservatives in powerful committee chairmanships, where they were able to obstruct civil rights legislation for years.

That line becomes particularly poignant in the council's debate becuase of the two membes vying for the chairmanship -- Betty Ann Kane who is white, and Charlene Drew Jarvis who is black. Tying Dixon to a seniority system would mean forcing him to appoint Kane, a potential rival in the 1982 election, instead of his friend and colleague Jarvis.

One source close to Dixon suggested that, political loyalties aside, it was only natural for the majority-black council in a majority-black city to want a black in charge of the Housing and Economic Development Committee. In a city where the black majority is only now beginning to assert control in the form of limited self-government, the business community is viewed as the intractable bastion of white domination, still calling the shots and pulling the strings behind the facade of black home rule.

Betty Ann Kane, rightly or wrongly, is viewed by many in the black community as leaning more toward the side of the business community. This is a perception Kane has said she is well aware of, and it comes despite the fact that she is a liberal Democrat who supported Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- who won handily in the city's black community -- and despite the fact that the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade in 1978 did not endorse her, but her opponent H.R. Crawford in the at-large race.

But the perception is there, lending credence in the eyes of many blacks to a so-called "master plan" by whites to reassert political control in the city. A recent Washington Post poll showed that blacks by a 4-to-1 margin believed in a white conspiracy for regaining control of the D.C. government, a conspiracy theory almost totally discounted by whites.

Kane sent something of a political shock wave through black Washington when she became the first white person to win a city-wide race. With the influx of new white voters into areas of the city being "revitalized" -- particularly Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle and, to a lesser extent so far, Shaw -- many blacks who believe in the master plan now openly fear that a white candidate for mayor or council chairman can actually win in this predominantly black city.

So, elevating Kane to the chair of the housing committee was more than Dixon trying to defuse a potential political rival. In many ways, that squabble touched on fundamental questions of future economic and political power in the city, and the question of whether whites or blacks are really in control.

The housing committee, one of the city council's most powerful panels, is responsible for overseeing all commercial development, at a time when the council must begin seriously charting a course for the city's future. The council in this new session will be dealing with issues such as how to attract more businesses and light industry to the city, how to encourage more job development in the private sector and council input into the long-overdue comprehensive plan for the District.

The clash between Kane (and her colleague John Ray, who wanted to share the committee with her) and Charlene Jarvis was a contest of personalities. Seniority was always a non-issue, since the council members are free to vote against the chairman's nominations if they prefer a more senior member be nominated.At its worst, in the private whisperings around the District buildings, race became the issue. From what is apparent, the issues never became the issue.

A majority of the council approved Jarvis to head the committee temporarily, and Dixon said he intends to ignore a new council-backed seniority rule and nominate Jarvis as permanent head before her term expires. Before then, Jarvis will be holding hearings, compiling a legislative track record, and functioning as the de facto permanent committee chairwoman.

Council members will be faced with a fait accompli, and even those who voted for the seniority rule are now openly saying that Jarvis should be easily approved as the permanent committee head -- if only because whe will have been functioning as temporary head for so long.

What is unfortunate about the way the whole episode was handled is that the debate never once focused on philosophies or legislative priorities. The council and the public both were denied an opportunity to hear a meaningful debate over the views of Kane and Jarvis as to how they would deal with the pressing economic and housing issues in the city. In the process, some consensus may have been developed, and that would have gotten the council's fourth legislative session off to a unified, rather than divisive, beginning.