Many significant things were happening in Congress the afternoon of May 4. Senate leaders were trying to piece together some kind of agreement on the federal budget. Their counterparts in the House were preparing for a final vote on a nuclear freeze.

But the men who run the House Committee on Energy and Commerce were unmindful of such global and national concerns as they gathered in their private lounge deep in the recesses of the Rayburn House Office Building. The issue they were dealing with was just as important to members of Congress as these others, perhaps even more so.

They were fighting over the committee budget: how it would be distributed and who would decide.

In a setting where billion-dollar decisions are commonplace, the amount they were quibbling over was minuscule, about $66,000 in the end. But the money in this case was a metaphor for control. The committee budget debate was the latest in a long tradition of power struggles between the full committee and its subcommittees that have reshaped the character of Energy and Commerce down through the years.

As such, it took on an importance greater than any single issue on the committee's sweeping agenda, and it brought out many of the most basic human qualities in the men who took part in the confrontation: their motivation and pride, ambition and history, respect and distrust.

Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), Big John, the imposing and skillful committee chairman, ran the meeting. He sat under an oversized satellite photograph of Earth, the only piece of art in the lounge, and a picture that is said, only partly in jest, to represent his view of the committee's jurisdiction.

Seated in the green chairs and dark sofas around him were his two top aides and the staff directors and chairmen of the subcommittees. All of them were allies in a broad ideological sense, mainstream-to-liberal Democrats, and many of them were personal friends. It would be an understatement to say that they were now feuding.

"It was hell in there," one of them said later. "It was raw and ugly and rough, and we didn't come out feeling especially good about ourselves. It was the real world. Unfortunately, we almost said what we really felt."

To appreciate the significance of this power struggle, a few basic facts are in order. Energy and Commerce has the largest annual budget ($4.25 million) and the biggest staff (155) in the House.

Although the committee historically has handled more legislation than any other--in an average year 30 to 35 percent of the bills introduced in the House fall under the jurisdiction of Energy and Commerce--its growth in the last 10 years has almost taken on the nature of empire-building. Ten years ago the committee budget totaled $640,000 and there were 42 staff members.

Most of the expansion occurred in 1974 and 1975. Rebellions against the seniority system and the powers of chairmen were being waged almost everywhere in the House then. Congressional committees and subcommittees, after years of being outmatched by the executive branch and the Nixon presidency, were building up their staffs and financial resources, effecting changes so profound that some define that period as the inaugural of the modern Congress.

Dingell began his rise to power in 1975 by taking over the energy subcommittee of what was then the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee and leading a revolt against Harley O. Staggers of West Virginia, the full committee chairman, whose leadership was considered passive and outdated by Dingell and other activists on the committee, including John E. Moss of California, Paul G. Rogers of Florida and Bob Eckhardt of Texas.

Moss, who challenged--and on the 13th ballot beat--Staggers for the chairmanship of the oversight subcommittee, and Dingell were especially frustrated by the chairman, who often, when he disapproved of their legislative or investigative pursuits, refused to give them hearing rooms in which to work. A few times every month, Moss called Dingell in a rage. "John," he would say, "you wouldn't believe what Harley's done to me now!"

Finally in 1975, in what has since been called the committee's Magna Carta agreement, they stripped Staggers of most of his authority, including the ability to distribute the money allotted to his committee each year.

That was also the year when the House received its largest class of liberal Democratic freshmen, whose ranks included Timothy E. Wirth of Colorado, Henry A. Waxman of California, Philip R. Sharp of Indiana and James J. Florio of New Jersey. Richard L. Ottinger of New York returned with that class after having been defeated four years earlier.

By 1981, when Dingell was chosen to succeed Staggers, who had retired, these ambitious and hard-working "Watergate Babies" had taken over the other leadership positions on Energy and Commerce. In running their subcommittees, they used none other than Dingell as a role model.

Dingell had helped shape a system in which the subcommittees, although they had no statutory authority other than that given them by the full committee, were in fact separate power bases, much like the states of a confederacy. And just as Dingell had established independence and control under Staggers, they did the same under him.

Or at least they tried to do so. That is what the May 4 fight was all about. "The issue was control, not money," said one of the participants. "Sixty-six thousand dollars, that's pocket change up here, bus money."

There would have been no reason for the dispute had it not been for the House Administration Committee, which must approve all committee budgets. Dingell and his subcommittee chairmen agreed in January that they would request a 13 percent increase over the year before, more than enough to satisfy all of their needs and wishes.

In the 1970s, House Administration members often rubber-stamped the budget requests of their Democratic brethren. But now, with the federal deficit so high and calls for restraint so loud, they could not accept 13 percent. Energy and Commerce was cut back to a 7.2 percent increase, and the fighting began.

Dingell started the meeting by explaining why he thought it necessary to assign a larger proportion of the 7.2 percent to the full committee, and the oversight subcommittee he also chaired, than to the other five subcommittees.

The analytic and computer work of the full committee staff, he said, made it possible for Energy and Commerce to win more budget battles with the Reagan administration than could any other congressional committee. It was the oversight subcommittee, he said, that was carrying out the most detailed investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Beyond that, Dingell argued, was the issue of chain-of-command. For the committee to function properly, basic decisions had to be made by someone, and that someone should be the chairman. If the subcommittee chairmen felt otherwise, he said, then a caucus of all the Democrats on the committee, already scheduled for the next day, would resolve the dispute.

Ottinger, chairman of the energy conservation and power panel, the senior subcommittee chairman and Dingell's closest friend among them, did most of the talking for his colleagues. He said the subcommittee chairmen were there in an effort to work out a compromise, to avoid taking the bloody fight to the caucus.

He pointed out the irony of Dingell's argument, noting that it was Dingell who, as an aggressive subcommittee boss, had led the rebellion against Staggers. Now that Dingell was in Staggers' seat, Ottinger said, he was trying to undo everything he had once done in the name of reform.

Then Ottinger took the debate to a more personal level. He accused Dingell of "undercutting" them by telling rank-and-file committee members that some subcommittees did not deserve more money because they were not productive enough.

Dingell considered that a challenge to his integrity. Nothing more brings out the fury in him.

"I have done nothing to undercut my chairmen," he said, challenging Ottinger to give him one example.

Ottinger said several members had told him that Dingell had told them Ottinger's own subcommittee did not need more money because it had reported out only one bill during the 97th Congress. In fact, Ottinger said, his subcommittee reported out four bills.

Dingell responded by saying he had based that statement on information Ottinger himself supplied to the full committee staff. If that was wrong, Dingell said, it was not his doing.

Throughout the debate, Dingell and the others pointed out time and again that they had the greatest respect for one another. But soon the words became harsher and the voices louder, with Sharp, Wirth and Florio joining the battle. Ottinger tried to get Dingell to calm down.

"You're digging in your heels on this, John," he said at one point, "just like you did last year on clean air. We all want to work this thing out without a repeat of what happened last year."

He said it almost in passing, as a throwaway line, but bringing up clean air in that setting was dangerous. Ottinger usually avoided the subject in conversations with Dingell. As he once explained: "John and I have a tacit agreement: we don't talk about gun control or clean air."

Last session, representing the interests of the automobile industry in his Michigan district, Dingell formed a coalition with the committee's Republicans in an attempt to change several sections of the Clean Air Act, including those dealing with auto emission standards.

All of the subcommittee chairmen oppposed Dingell, and beat him, in that effort. Some bad blood still lingers from the fight, especially between Dingell and Waxman, chairman of the health and environment subcommittee.

Dingell is said to think that Waxman broke his word to him last year by using delaying tactics when the committee was attempting to mark up Dingell's version of the clean air bill.

Even some of Dingell's aides disagree with their boss on that point, but they have been unable to convince him that Waxman was simply playing the legislative game just as Dingell plays it: tough and to the end. Luckily, perhaps, Waxman was not at this meeting. He was home sick with the flu.

"We will talk about clean air in another forum," said Dingell, sternly.

This is one of a series of occasional articles on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Wirth, chairman of the telecommunications subcommittee, questioned the amount of money Dingell was assigning to the full committee for expansion of the computer system. He said the agendas of the subcommittees in attempting to rebuild the country's economy and reshape the regulatory process were more important than computers.

Wirth is always saying things like that. Few members are more articulate at framing issues, presenting the big picture, drafting alternative agendas for the party and the nation. Many of his colleagues find that quality both admirable and disconcerting. They respect his boundless energy and creativity, but sometimes tire of the impression that Wirth's big pictures always seem to feature him right in the middle.

The response to Wirth this time was prosaic. It was pointed out to him that a disproportionate share of the memory storage in the committee's computers was taken up by the work of his staff.

At about that point, one participant recounted later, most of the people in the room "got 'Why-in-the-hell-are-we-here?' looks on their faces."

"These were not six thugs divvying up the loot," said another. "These were some of the most intelligent, skilled, hard-working members of Congress."

The meeting ended without resolution, and the next round of the power struggle began. Dingell worked the phones, presenting his case to the 21 other Democrats on the committee. Waxman, from his sickbed, matched Dingell call for call. The other subcommittee chairmen quickly drafted a "Dear Colleague" letter and dispatched it to congressional offices in the Rayburn, Longworth and Cannon buildings.

But most Democrats on the committee wanted to stay as far away from the fight as possible.

"You'd think this was Armageddon or something," said Ron Wyden, a third-term committee member from Oregon, as he strolled from the Capitol, where he had just voted on a nuclear freeze amendment, to his Longworth office, where phone messages from Waxman and Dingell awaited him.

"Which side am I on?" asked Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts during a break in the floor action on the nuclear freeze resolution he was co-sponsoring. "I'll tell you, it's like a movie I saw in which an 18-year-old Japanese-American, interned in California, was asked whether he was for the Japanese or the Americans. He said: 'I remember when I was a young boy, lying upstairs in bed listening to my parents fight down in the kitchen. You don't care who wins when your parents are fighting. You just want them to stop.' "

By the time the Democrats on the committee caucused the next morning behind the closed doors of their hearing room at 2123 Rayburn, they all looked weary and exhausted. Dingell thought he had enough votes. So did the subcommittee chairmen.

In fact, neither side did. After initial arguments were presented, politely and with none of the emotion of the day before, a motion was passed to adjourn for one week.

One by one, the legislators emerged from the hearing room, walking past a long line of lobbyists, public activists and tourists who were waiting for the next public hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, a hearing at which government programs worth hundreds of millions of dollars would be authorized.

The $66,000 power struggle had become an embarrassment, and neither Dingell nor his subcommittee chairmen wanted to take the fight back to the caucus again.

Four days later, back in the lounge, they worked out a compromise. They would split the difference.