THE PERFORMANCE was ludicrous. First, the House of Representatives voted down the budget resolution for 1981, presumably on grounds that it gave too much money to the military and not enough to domestic programs. Then the House voted, on second thought, not to cut the defense money at all.

You could argue that perhaps the first vote meant more, because it was recorded. The second was a voice vote at the end of a session that had worn well into the evening and was getting pretty disheveled. But it's also true that there's an epidemic of real ambivalence in the House regarding this budget. It marks a painful change of direction. A lot of the members dislike, in principle, holding down commitments such as mass transportation or job training to give a larger share to defense. But in practice, most of them concede that now and for some years to come a larger share for defense is going to be necessary.

This budget resoltuion does not really lend itself to any large dramatic struggle over the political symbolisms of guns and butter. The amounts of money now in dispute are too small. The defeated resolution called for $153.7 billion in defense outlays. The rebellion among the Democrats was led by people who would have settled for $153.0 billion. That's a difference of less than half a percentage point.

There are disputes, invevitably, over the distribution of the hold-downs and cutbacks in the domestic budget. There is also a widespread irritation in the House that the House-Senate conference was settled so close to the Senate's terms. But these are the kinds of differences that ought to lend themselves to routine compromise next week without any great change in the basic outline of the budget.

This congressional budget process was devised six years ago to require Congress to confront the hard budget questions -- and there are at least a few members who do not welcome that exercise. The budget process imposes the congressional self-discipline that is the price of power over fiscal policy. Some of the members think that the price is too high.It's more fun to vote for all the high numbers, and leave the cutting and balancing to the White House -- as in the old days.

But this new budget system is making a substantial difference, very much for the better, in the way that federal budgets are made. Congress, for example, was quicker than President Carter to see the need to balance next year's budget. To fail to reach agreement on a resolution now would only confirm the impression left by Thursday night's conflicting votes that Congress couldn't make up its mind on money matters. With an unsettled and weakening economy, that's a bad impression to leave.