MAYBE IT'S the gavel. Or the way they look down on D.C. witnesses from an elevated dais. Whatever the reason, something strange, bordering on ornery, seems to come over otherwise reasonable members of Congress when their attention turns to the District. It was on display last week during hearings of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee for the District.

The mayor, council chairman and a member of the control board were called before the panel to present the city's proposed budget for fiscal year 2000. Everything should have been to the Senate's liking. The budget is balanced, the books show a surplus and, unlike in years past, the mayor and council are pretty much in agreement on spending and tax policies. Most important, the control board -- created by Congress to rescue a near-bankrupt city -- has unanimously blessed the budget. That should have been music to a conservative Congress's ears.

But no. Subcommittee Chairman Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, in the best tradition of her worst predecessors, began by rebuking the council for raising its own pay to $92,000 for part-time work. It mattered not to the senator that the council is paid out of locally raised tax dollars or that the appropriateness of pay levels is an issue to be judged by D.C. voters. Sen. Hutchison said she is weighing "the option of lowering those pay raises."

She also said she might seek an alternative to the control-board-approved debt-restructuring plan that helps pay for the city's $300 million tax-cut package. Again, it matters not to the chairman that the control board says the plan would rid the city of 43 percent of its debts in five years, compared with the industry norm of 25 percent in a similar time frame. The senator wants to find other ways to pay for the tax cut -- which she supports -- and that's that.

Sen. Hutchison has made it clear that she does not feel bound to respect any agreement among the control board, mayor and council. They are the minions, the gavel is hers, she's the boss, and the home rule act be damned.