The impulse is so understandable in human and political terms. The Democrats in the House had their recess ruined by the rout on the budget reconciliation votes. While 29 to 34 of their colleagues jumped fences to vote with President Reagan, the House Republicans were unanimous on one key vote and suffered only two negligible defections on the other. So, naturally, the cry arises from the Democrats: why can't we ship our people into line like they do?

Democratic National Chairman Charles T. Manatt, who is new enough in his own job to have trouble remembering the names of the defectors he is critizing, nonetheless declares "it is high time" that the House Democratic caucus deal with the renegades. In response to similar mutterings from within the House, the caucus chairman, Rep. Gillis W. Long of Louisiana, has promised to convene the House Democrats to consider the discipline question.

As one who has seen the Democrats go down this road before, all I can say is: "good luck." The impulse is understandable and even worthy. Parties are more effective, impressive and accountable when they can command the united support of their elected officials for important policy positions. But when the promptings of conscience or constituency or the normal collegial pressures prove insufficient to secure a vote from a particular congressman, the practical problems of compelling that vote become very serious.

American parties are loose, decentralized coalitions, in which every elected official is ultimately accountable to his or her own constituents and ultimately subject to the discipline they can exert by their disapproval at the polls.

Back in the 1960s, before the House Democrats had given much serious thought to this matter, they undertook to discipline two renegade southerners who had publicly endorsed Barry Goldwater over Lyndon Johnson, by stripping them of their seniority. The effect was to make John Bell Williams of Mississippi and Albert W. Watson of South Carolina martyrs in the eyes of their constituents, and then Republicans.

The clamor from Manatt and others to crack down on Rep. Phil Gramm, the Texas Democrat who has been Reagan's favorite partner in the budget fight, could have the same effect. And there are some of his colleagues who suspect that Gramm is aching to be pushed into martyrdom and a party switch.

But there is another approach to the question that, while less satisfying to the search for immediate vengeance, offers prospects of a longer-term cure. The House Democrats established the proper principle back in the mid-1970s, when they ended the seniority system as an automatic route to committee assignments and chairmanships and gave that authority to the elected leadership and the caucus.

What they said was that a member owes his seat to the voters in his district and his vote to his conscience and his constituents, but his committee assignment and his leadership role -- if any -- he owes to the caucus of his fellow partisans.

Invoking that principle, the caucus stripped committee chairmanships from three incumbents in 1975 and since then has several times passed over the senior claimant in choosing important subcommittee chairmen or electing people to such prized committees as Budget, Ways and Means or Rules.

Phil Gramm, a free-market economist whose principles are indistinguishable from most Republicans, College Station and Waxahachie. That was their responsibility. But he became a member of the Budget Committee by grace of the Democratic caucus, and that is a privilege that caucus can recommend the House revoke.

Jim Wright, the majority leader and a fellow Texan, thinks that would be untimely now. He would prefer to wait until Gramm comes before the caucus at the start of the next Congress. He would deny him immediate martyrdom while holding open the threat of future discipline.

But Gillis Long, the caucus chairman, points out from his perspective, as a southerner who has in times past paid the price of defeat for his willingness to take the risk of voting as a "national Democrat," that the seeming impunity with which Gramm ignores the demands of party loyalty makes it harder for others from his state or region to vote with their party.

Whether the Democrats in the House choose to take Wright's advice or Long's is a matter of prudential political decision on their part -- not a matter for sloganeering.

But the principle is clear. The Democrats do not have to choose between being rigid seminarians of doctrine and discipline or being a bunch of supine dopes. There are sensible middle-ground options available to them.