IN THE BROAD budget battles of the 1980s, the once-mighty House and Senate appropriations committees often seemed to fade from view. Their leaders have not been that visible in this year's budget battle, either. Yet recently these masters of the detail of government have been coming back into their own. Their recovery is due in part to precisely the aspect of the current congressional budget process they like least: the limits it imposes on the funds they have available.

The appropriations panels used to be their own policemen. In the budget summits of recent years, however, the habit has grown up of capping the so-called discretionary funds the appropriators have to distribute, and the new summit agreement continues the practice. Except for the supplemental appropriations they can often still push through once attention has shifted to the next fiscal year, that leaves the appropriators playing a zero-sum game.

The first step is a process to which too little attention still is paid: the appropriations panels allocate their funds among their subcommittees. Then the subcommittees grind the corn even finer. Impressive-sounding authorization bills can be passed with all the flourish in the world. The subsequent appropriations fights are what really matter.

The jurisdictional lines between the subcommittees become enormously important in this; they frame the competition. The so-called HUD-independent agencies subcommittees control the appropriations for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and such other units of the government as the Veterans Affairs Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. The space program can only be treated generously at the expense of the veterans, the cities or EPA.

Similar unlikely rivalries are showing up in other subcommittees. The Senate's State-Justice-Commerce panel has said it can't meet the U.S. obligation to the United Nations and still provide adequately within its allocation for federal law enforcement and such musts as the National Weather Service. The Labor-Health and Human Services panel, in which most of the social welfare programs of the government jostle, is being called upon to dock education programs in order to fund, partially, a new program for AIDS that Congress happily authorized without serious thought to the appropriations process earlier this year. The child care fight in this Congress has likewise had to do in part with appropriations -- whether to set up a new program outside the appropriations process or put it inside, in competition for funds with related programs such as Head Start.

One result of this Balkanization is to make the division of funds among the appropriations subcommittees a crucial step; under the new budget terms it is likely to be even more so over the next several years. At least among the domestic subcommittees, the division has up to now been the prerogative of the appropriators. The last thing anyone should want is to add another layer to the wedding cake the budget process has become, but this is too vast a decision tobe made by a single committee. A way should be found in advance of the writing of the appropriations bills, perhaps as part of the annual budget resolution, to make it more representatively on the floor.