It was that look of brotherly exasperation seen at a million family dinner tables. All along the subcommittee dais, eyeballs rolled heavenward as the congressman from California talked.

The thing about congressional democracy is that every offbeat and dissonant voice may be laughed at, but it must be heard. So they listened to Rep. William E. Dannemeyer, a Republican evangelist of fiscal restraint.

He was badgering the witnesses, key government officials in biomedical research, as much as he was lecturing his congressional brethren for handing blank checks to the National Institutes of Health.

Madness" is how Dannemeyer described it. "We load up your wheelbarrow with more money than you can spend. What is the limit?"

Dr. Julius B. Richmond, assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, explained that President Carter was proposing $3.6 billion for NIH in fiscal 1981. Dr. Donald S. Fredrickson, NIH director, nodded in agreement.

Dannemeyer still wasn't satisfied. In other words, he said, "What you spend is what you need."

It was not just the hot combativeness of Dannemeyer's rhetoric that made his colleagues squirm. It was his target.

You just don't talk to NIH like that in Congress; over the years, these health research institutes have developed a special protected status.

Most agencies have two masters in each house of Congress. They look to both an authorizing and an appropriations committee. One sets boundaries for their activities, the other provides -- or does not provide -- the necessary funds. There is often a kind of isometric tension between these authorizing and appropriating arms.

But for reasons not entirely clear to all, the 11 institutes that make up NIH have somehow grown up outside the authorizing process. Now Dannemeyer's unit -- the House Commerce subcommittee on health and environment, chaired by Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) -- is seeking in a deferential way to reassert its authorizing jurisdiction. And predictably, it is running into resistance.

NIH and the diease associations that lobby for more research money have become extremely comfortable with friendly treatment at the appropriations committees. New questions raised by unfamiliar faces on an authorizing committee are discomfiting.

Waxman himself acknowledged that he is "a little intimidated by NIH," and says "I'm not sure we can give it the oversight it requires."

"NIH has not had to live by the two-committee process," Waxman said. "There is some feeling here at the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee that we don't know what is going on at NIH."

That would change with legislation approved by Waxman's subcommittee last week. His Health Research Act of 1980 would establish authorizations and funding levels for each of the institutes. A similar bill is moving through the Senate health subcommittee, and final congressional approval of a composite bill is likely this year.

The intent, Waxman said, is to allow the authorizing committees "to look at the priorities on research dollars, to look at internal priorities, to provide more openness . . . to set out a coherent way for Congress to deal with NIH."

Interestingly, and not at all surprisingly, the Waxman bill has provoked heavy opposition in the Carter administration, at NIH and in the powerful biomedical research network that spans the country.

Among those opposing the Waxman bill before it was modified somewhat during subcommittee markups was HEW Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris.

In an interview last month, Harris said she had seen no resistance at NIH to the idea of more oversight by Congress. "Everybody in government feels they ought to be left alone," she said, "but I am always optimistic that they will understand ultimately they'll be better off not being left alone."

This month, however, in a letter to the committee, Harris provided eight single-spaced pages of resistance to the Waxman proposals. Her position, put briefly, was that the bill would be too intrusive.

"The administration resisted us," Waxman said. "And the refusal of Dr. Richmond and Dr. Fredrickson to comment on the bill at our hearings meant the administration had clamped down on NIH people so they would have a common front. I was not particularly pleased by that."

Among the critics of Waxman and his subcommittee is the Association of American Medical Colleges, speaking for 126 schools and over 400 major teaching hospitals -- important beneficiaries of the research and training grant money NIH doles out.

A Waxman proposal that NIH contracts, which are an occasional source of scandal and mismanagement, undergo the same quality review as research grants drew a bitter blast.

Speaking for AAMC, Dr. Robert W. Berliner, dean of medicine at Yale University, said such review would be "appallingly disruptive" and "a major and completely unwarranted intrusion on the authorities and responsibilities of full-time federal officials."

The American Academy of Dermatology took it even further, but caught the essence of the sacred-cow status that NIH and biomedical research have attained on Capitol Hill.

The academy said the proposal to review and reauthorize each institute and its spending would attract a new group of busy legislators "whose understanding of the needs cannot possibly be sophisticated as those legislators who have dealth with the appropriations process for many years."

That is not the way to win political hearts and minds.

Henry Waxman and his subcommittee, by no means enemies or even very vigorous critics of NIH and research, are a little stunned by it all. "We really are only asserting our support and our role in the process without opposing what they are doing," Waxman said. "I just think biomedical research should not be a life unto itself."