House Democrats yesterday adopted a series of rules changes designed to spread more power to newer members, but balked at a direct challenge to committee chairmen.

In a series of votes at the party's organizing caucus, Democrats voted to limit themselves to service on no more than five subcommittees and made it easier for less-senior members to receive choice subcommittee assignments. But they rejected a move to prohibit committee chairmen from chairing a subcommittee. The caucus also voted to reduce the amount of time spent voting on the House floor.

Yesterday's results revealed no clear reform trend among Democratic House members, as there was in 1974 when the caucus moved aggressively to curtail the power of committee chairmen.

This time, conflicting currents run through the group.

Many members feel that the pendulum of reform has swung too far, that subcommittees have become all-powerful with no mechanism to restrain their output of legislation.

The inability to restrain the flow of legislation from more than 150 House subcommittees has produced frustration for Republicans and led them to demand ever-increasing numbers of roll-call votes as a means to attempting to stem the tide.

This led to the limit on Democratic subcommittee assignments and the move to cut down on the number of roll-call votes. But at the same time newer members continued to press for further changes to distribute power more widely.

As a result, the caucus voted yesterday to:

Allow returning members to keep one subcommittee seat, rather than two, before newer members get a choice.

Prohibit chairmen of standing committees from chairing select, special, ad hoc or joint committees.

Prevent bidding for subcommittee chairmanships on the basis of subcommittee tenure, except for Appropriations.

The most interesting clash of the day came on the most important of the newer members' proposals. Rep. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) moved to prevent full committee chairmen from chairing any subcommittees.

The debate led to an almost instant generation gap, as older "reformers" such as Reps. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), Phillip Burton (D-Calif.) and Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.) derided the proposal as going "too far." They predicted it would result in turning committee chairmen into powerless figureheads unable to do anything but sign paychecks and make administrative decisions.

"You can't have it both ways," Udall said. "You can't put power in the subcommittee, then prevent the full committee chairman from sharing in the action." Udall chairs the House Interior Committee.

Government Operations Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) said if Dodd's proposal was adopted, "you might as well get a clerk to head the committee."

Burton predicted it would make chairmen "spectators" unable to shepherd through major legislation in which they were interested.

"If what I'm hearing is correct, no one who is now a chairman would runfor reelection," Dodd said. "It might be an interesting experiment to see if that is the case." Dodd argued that his proposal was merely a continuation of the "distribution of power" theme, but he was defeated 85 to 21.

Meanwhile, Republicans took up a bit of the power distribution theme as they voted Monday to limit each member to being the ranking Republican on only one committee.