One legislator from Northern Virginia calls it a "direct, frontal attack on representative government." Another from a rural county near Roanoke calls it a diabolical scheme by powerful interest groups to snuff out "the cries of the little man."

Yet to the coalition of business groups and conservative lawmakers who are behind it, the proposal to amend Virginia's Constitution to allow the legislature to limit the number of bills and issues it will consider at its so-called short sessions is vital. The measure, they say, is the most certain way to restore fiscal sanity and sound conservative principles to the state government.

"We want less government and not more government," says Sumpter T. Priddy Jr., president of the Virginia Retail Merchants Association. "And that's exactly what this says."

The proposal, Constitutional Question No. 3 on the Nov. 2 ballot, has become something of a sleeper issue in this fall's elections. Unlike most Constitutional amendments, this one has sparked a fierce political struggle, throwing many of the state's major interest groups into a frenzy.

On one side are established interests such as the Virginia Manufacturers Assocation, the Virginia Realtors Assocation, the Virginia Farm Bureau, Priddy's retail merchants and conservative stalwarts such as state senators Howard P. Anderson (D-Halifax) and Elmon T. Gray (D-Sussex).

"It's the real old Byrd organization types," says Gordon Morse, executive director of Common Cause of Virginia. "It's the people who take a dim view of any legislative activity period, the people who come up here to vote against all legislation."

Morris' Common Cause, the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters are attempting to kill the measure, arguing it will unduly limit the legislature's power to address vital state issues. The League has distributed about 20,000 pamphlets urging "Vote No" in big red letters. "It makes a mockery of our constitutionally guaranteed right to petition our government for a redress of grievances," says ACLU lobbyist Judy Goldberg.

As the proponents see it, however, the amendment is basic common sense. Every odd year, Virginia's 140 part-time lawmakers meet for 30-day sessions (which typically are extended by about two and half weeks) and find themselves swamped with an avalanche of bills (1,670 during the last short session in 1981). The upshot can be mass confusion, a legislative comedy of errors.

"They most often can't give the bills an objective appraisal," says Priddy. The result, he says, is an increasingly number of committee meetings and legislative hearings during the off-session. "It puts pressure on the business people who are the backbone of our citizen legislature," says Priddy.

The amendment, which was twice approved by narrow majorities of the General Assembly in 1981 and 1982, would address the problem with what critics call a meat-ax approach. At the start of each odd session, the legislature could by majority vote pass a resolution limiting the number and subjects of the bills that could be introduced that year.

Critics say that would create a new set of problems. State Del. Warren Stambaugh (D-Arlington) charged last week that the amendment would virtually guarantee that such traditionally unpopular or controversial issues such as repealing the state sales tax on food or tenant-oriented housing bills would be barred, while those supported by more powerful interests would be allowed.

The legislature would end up spending so much time debating what can and cannot be considered that nothing would ever get done, added state Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria), another opponent. "There would be a very real risk of a total legislative deadlock," he said.

Not coincidentally, the man who many believe has the most to gain from reducing the power of the legislature, Gov. Charles S. Robb, is maintaining a studied neutrality. Not wanting to anger either side, Robb said recently that while "I concur wholeheartedly in the spirit of that proposed amendment," he shared many of the opponents' reservations. "Because of those reservations," Robb said, "I am not going to speak out."