THE PRESIDENT'S friends and allies in the House, the Republicans and a crucial few Democrats have beaten what he called, inaccurately, a gag rule. In its place they have imposed a real gag -- and a very tight one. They have defeated the procedure that would have found them to debate and vote separately on the specific spending cuts they demand -- cuts in pensions, school lunches and health programs. Instead, they will vote on all of the cuts rolled together as the president's program.

It's hardly an example of legislative responsibility. There were important choices that could not hold its coalition together on a series of roll calls on the Social Security minimum, for example, or the cap on Medicaid. In a tidier world you would expect that the congressman who supports the whole package would be willing to support each of its parts. But voting on the parts puts him on record against those school lunches, while voting for the whole thing means that he supports a popular president. Yesterday's bipartisan majority gave the impression of not really wanting to know exactly what's in the huge disheveled budget package that they are not preparing to push to final passage and certainly of not wanting to take public responsibility for their votes.

This is unfortunate. White there was neither time nor will in the House to permit any fine-tuning on the budget bill -- taking this small feature from the administration plan and that from the committees' -- there were some major differences that deserved individual consideration. In many areas -- such as welfare, Social Security and health -- the choices made by the authorizing committees are fairer ways of distributing the budget-cutting pain than those recommended by the administration. The adminstration's plan preferable.

Now the House will have to swallow one or the other package whole. You should remember, however, that despite all the rhetoric on both sides, the really big choices were made some time ago. The budget resoluation adopted by Congress last month determined not only the size of the budget cut -- over $35 billion -- but its distribution among area of federal spending. These are no longer issues. Both the House-drafted bill and the various versions offered by the administration add up to about the same budget totals for next year -- in fact, the administration's latest offering may be somewhat less frugal as the result of added sweeteners for powerful lobbies. Both protect, to a lsightly greater or lesser degree, the same sacred cows. Both, again with only slight variations of degree, put the brunt of the cuts on the poor and nearly poor.

Some important choices have been foreclosed by yesterday's vote, and some unnecessarily harsh effects will occur. To some extent this may have been the result of a failure in months and years gone by to carry out with a scalpel the surgery that most people agree was needed. But now the job is being done witha hatchet -- by people who are not brave enough to vote out loud in public for the things they are bringing to pass.