When the recidivist dieter decides he can't go on any longer, one more Twinkie and he'll explode, he does this: he locks the refrigerator door and mails the key to his uncle in Yuma.

The strategy is, of course, illogical. If he has the willpower to resist the call of the pilot light, he doesn't have to go through these shenanigans. And if he doesn't have the willpower, he can still fly to Yuma, pick up the key, come home and open the refrigerator. What's the point?

The point is that it is long way to Yuma. People don't always have the will to do what they know they have to do, so they invent little stratagems to make the alternatives unpalatable.

Welcome to the world of Gramm-Rudman. If Congress and the president cannot agree on a budget that cuts the deficit by a reasonable amount (one-fifth) every year for the next five, automatic cuts go into effect. An agent of the president (director of the Office of Management and Budget) and an agent of Congress (director of the Congressional Budget Office) agree on the amount of the shortfall. A referee (comptroller general of the General Accounting Office) then resolves discrepancies.

The three uncles calculate the procit and the required across-the-board cuts to meet Gramm-Rudman targets. The cuts then automatically go into effect. Unless, that is, the threat moves Congress and the president to reason -- i.e, judicious, non-automatic defense and domestic cuts and a tax hike.

From the anguished cries of critics, you'd have thought representative government as we know it had come to an end. Twelve House members are asking the courts to rule unconstitutional this transfer of power from the elected branches to the unelected.

But it is he elected branches that created the formula that governs the cuts. The formula -- calculate the shortfall, divide by X, add Y, and multiply by the number of cowards in Congress -- is in the Gramm-Rudman bill. And being a bill, it was passed not by the Supreme Soviet but by Congress, and signed by the president, also elected.

How can one seriously talk of excessive delegation during the reign of an imperial Federal Reserve? Who elected Paul Volcker? What the CBO and the OMB and finally the GAO do is no more than, as we used to say in grade school, plug in the values. Theirs is not a political decision but a determination of numbers, something the elected branches delegate to un Census Bureau calculations determine huge shifts in the allocation of federal monies, even of congressional seats. Who elected its chief?

So, line of attack number 2: Gramm-Rudman allows no choices. And to govern is to choose, said John Kennedy, an insight recently rediscovered by The New York Times and Sen. Daniel Moynihan, among other critics.

If to govern is to choose, the United States has been in anarchy for some time now. Last month, faced with a reconciliation bill cutting $75 billion over three years (out of a three year deficit maybe eight times that size) the 99th Congress boldly chose to adjourn.

True, Gramm-Rudman has no priority list. But neither does Congress. At least Gramm- Rudman has three classes of program: those subject to full automatic cuts, those subject to partial automatic cuts, and those exempt. Call it the modified flat cut, the budgetary equivalent (but enjoying none of the vogue) of that hot political property, the modified flat tax.

Now, if nothing happens other than Gramm- Rudman, the results will be absolutely intolerable -- soon. Soon no FBI. Soon no Coast Guard. Soon national parks paved over to pay their way as parking lots.

In short, a disaster, and a man-made one at that. But the deficit (dignified by the adjective "structural" to make it sound inherent to the natural order of things) is equally man-made, and threatens a worse disaster. What awaits us in 1991 if we accumulate $1 trillion more debt is far more serious than asphalt in Yellowstone -- the debt will pave over the whole economy -- but far less tangible.

And that is the genius of, and sole justification for, Gramm-Rudman: noth palpable will concentrate the mind of Congress and the president on cuts and compromise.

It is only January and the assumption is proved. In Washington today, political talk starts and ends with Gramm-Rudman. Everything is driven by Gramm-Rudman. That is, driven by the deficit. Except that the term "Gramm-Rudman" has the law behind it and a buzz-saw ahead of it. "Deficit" is mush.

In Congress, says Rep. Les AuCoin, "people are looking at this (coming session) with real dread." Already, words of hope.

Says Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole: "There's likely to be a lot of china broken around here before it's over." A nation awaits the first blessed sound.

The elected branches, incapable of choosing and aware of the incapacity, have undertaken an act of reckless wisdom and daring cowardice. They mailed the key to Yuma.

Sure it is a trick, the worst trick around except for all the others.