IT SOUNDED like something straight out of the movie "Network" -- all those people hollering maniacally into the night from their rabbit-warren highrise windows. In fact, it was very nearly a direct -- and no doubt intentional -- quotation of their capsnapped ultimatum ("I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!"). Only the voice was not that of actor Peter Finch playing the cracked-up commentator, Howard Beale. Rather it was the voice of Delaware's chief executive, Pierre S. du Pont IV. The setting was the good old governors' conference. The subject (as if you didn't already know) was the newly popular drive to limit federal spending via an amendment to the Constitution. And the quotation went as follows: "The people are mad as hell and they're not going to take it anymore.... Listen to us and our legislatures and don't treat us lightly.... Don't underestimate the depth and strength of feeling we have in the states."

Good, strong, dramatic, even revolutionary stuff. Except for the part about "legislatures," the ayatollah's street-followers could hardly have put it any better to the shah. And this being so, we kind of hate to intrude on the passion with what are essentially pedantic corrections. But correct we must. For the plain fact is that where federally raised and disbursed monies are concerned, what the people are saying is not that they won't take it any more, but rather that they won't give it any more -- two quite different things.

Then there is this word "people," as in "the people are mad as hell... etc." We don't quite know how to explain this novel thought, but those familiar-looking primates who may be seen behind desks in the federal agencies in Washington or pounding each other amiably on the back as they move about the House and Senate floors shouting "Aye" and "No" when the roll calls are taken -- well, they are people, too. The point is not intended to be sentimental. Rather it is practical: These are the people who represent the other people; by and large, they have either been sent here by the voters or hired by the voters' deputized civil servants and are under the impression that they are doing the majority's bidding. Of course many of them and many of the programs they have devised are terrible. But the Washington tax-and-appropriations-and-administrative system did not just grow. Crazy, mixed up enterprise that it is, it reflects the better and worse desires and judgments over the years of precisely those people who now declare it to be little more than a source of endless inequity and drunken fiscal extravagance.

On the opposite page today we print some excerpts from the governors' debate on the subject, and these will illustrate that it is no easier to apportion innocence and guilt in these matters than it is to apportion the money in contention. The governors and their constituents need both to accept a measure of responsibility for the nation's fiscal plight and to face up to the implications for themselves and their own programs of the kind of budgetary restraints they are talking about; it's no good pretending that money for life-as-usual in the states can be taken out of someone else's profligacy. Likewise, the members of Congress who favor amending the Constitution in this connection need to face up to the implication of what they are urging -- namely, a constitutional restraint on their own authority, borne of an apparent concession that they cannot trust themselves to legislate with prudence and wisdom. At some point in this high-minded, not to say sanctimonious, debate, people, mad as hell or not, need to be reminded that they are talking about themselves.