One night in early February each year, just when Maryland's lawmakers are starting to think seriously about what to do with their three months of public responsibility, a caravan of buses carries almost the entire General Assembly off to a ballroom near the Baltimore beltway for an evening.

There, the members of the legislature banish all pretense of restraint -- even in a year when "living within our means" has become a universal theme -- to indulge in one of those events that help make public office worthwhile in Maryland. This is the Maryland Agricultural Dinner, the most lavish of legislative free feeds.

Amidst sparkling chandelier lights and gold-framed mirrors, it seems the sides of beef, hams, turkeys, lamb briskett, chicken and corn pudding will go on forever.

"Hey," bellowed Bill McCaffrey, a sanguine Democratic delegate from Prince George's County who leaned back from one groaning table at the 1981 agriculture dinner last Thursday night, "legislators like to eat. And eat big!"

"Hey, we only get $20 a day for food, and how far do you think that goes," McCaffrey explained. "So, like last week, I was at a reception, and I made myself a Dagwood -- you know two pieces of bread with everything I could get inside. Someone says to me, 'You're not going to eat that' and I say, 'Hey -- watch this.'"

McCaffrey is no oddball. Most of the legislators here supplement their per-diems by making the rounds each week of the dozens of receptions and dinners thrown for them by lobbyists and trade associations -- all featuring free food and drink.

Last week, for example, Pepco had a dinner for Washington-area legislators, while Baltimore Gas and Electric had a feed for their area representatives and the doctors' association had a private dinner with the Montgomery County senators. Then there were the receptions staged by the Young Democrats, Loyola College, the Maryland Alliance of Advocates and the Communications Workers of America, among others.

The money spent for all the free food and drink the legislators are offered would probably come close to funding some of the missing programs in Gov. Harry Hughes' budget. But when it comes to truly lavish entertainment, no one beats the farmers -- and the legislators turn out by the hundreds.

There in the ballroom last week one could find House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore City), who urged Hughes not to propose a gas tax this year, munching hors d'oeuvres with the senator who is trying to resurrect the tax proposal, Laurence Levitan (D-Mont.).

In another corner, House prison subcommittee chief Del. Frank Robey (d-Baltimore City) could be seen in heated discourse with Michael Canning, Hughes' program aide for prisons. And even quiet Montgomery County delegates like Democrat Jennie Forehand were there to see and be seen, although Forehand remarked guiltily, "I feel like we should all have brought along somebody who was just cut off from food stamps."

The farmers had their say, of course. Before anyone could dig into their chicken or turkey or ham, there was a prayer that asked the Lord, in part, for increased funds for agriculture programs.

"I never heard a prayer like that before," Hughes later told the crowd. "I didn't have any problem with it -- I only wished that you had included some more state revenues in there, too."

Those half-joking comments set the tone for the evening. For like all such events, the agriculture dinner is half fun and half business, half joke and half truth.

Just ask Rep. Roy Dyson (D-St. Mary's), a former legislator who had this to say to the crowd: "When I came in here some people were saying to me, 'Why do you rate a seat at the head table, what did you do that you deserve to be in Congress instead of me?'

"Well," Dyson said, "I just want you to know that I spent $350,000 to sit up here."