It fell something short of a star-chamber proceeding, but it was plain from the beginning that news of a theatrical nature was about to be committed in Room 2247 of the Rayburn House Office Building.

Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.), chairman of the House Government Operations subcommittee and sole member present, sat patiently at the dais awaiting the arrival of his main witness, Daniel G. Amstutz, the undersecretary of agriculture for international affairs and commodity programs.

Reporters thumbed through advance copies of testimony. A television crew had camera in place. Subcommittee staffers lolled about. A few curious citizens sat in the straight-backed chairs, ready to soak up the drama.

All were lured, presumably, by English's billing of the event: "USDA's Mishandling of Dairy Buy-Out Program." Mishandling. Scandal. Ineptitude. Grist for the press, grist for English's subcommittee on government information, justice and agriculture.

The issue was management of a program designed to reduce milk surpluses. Last year's farm bill required the government to pay farmers an inducement to leave the dairy business and send their cows to slaughter or into the export market. The bill also stipulated that marketing be done "in an orderly way."

But the plan worried the National Cattlemen's Association (NCA), which feared that a rush of cows to slaughter would depress beef prices. The fears were justified. Prices tumbled when USDA sent the first dairy cows to market; ranchers and feedlot operators claim they lost tens of millions of dollars.

The NCA sued the department and prevailed. USDA then agreed to a plan that would space out the shipment of dairy animals to slaughterhouses and put less pressure on prices. The cattlemen declared themselves satisfied. The fight seemed academic at that point, but English is nothing if not persistent.

Some other background is useful.

English is a Democrat. The Agriculture Department is run by Republicans. The English subcommittee has been on the GOP's case for four years. One investigation after another has found fault with departmental management or found willful neglect of congressional intent.

Republicans at USDA are less than awed by this. English probes and points out the flaws. USDA continues about its business, in part because of a feeling that hearings of the sort English conducted yesterday are an inevitable part of Washington's political theater, but are not to be taken entirely seriously.

Even on Capitol Hill there is not total disagreement with this attitude. "Why are we doing this?" a subcommittee assistant asked rhetorically. "I guess you could call it politics. But the deleted lied to us and it's the job of this subcommittee to ask why."

At a little past 10 o'clock, the avuncular Amstutz trundled into the room, sat down at the witness table, fidgeted a tad and then lit a filter cigarette, like a miscreant brought into the lineup room.

The hearing began with Amstutz under oath, because English has a bit of the prosecutor in him. English briefly laid out the background and the issues. "And this subcommittee still wants to know why USDA ignored the law," he concluded.

Amstutz read a lengthy statement defending the department's handling of the dairy program. He did not concede that there had been problems. He acknowledged that his department had lost in court, but said he thought the court was wrong.

It was something of a standoff. Reporters drifted away during the morning. Other subcommittee members wandered in and out. Around lunch time -- faced with a hearing that might drag through the afternoon -- the camera operators packed up and left.

Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), although he doesn't belong to the subcommittee, stopped in as a guest. Known for his acumen at plumbing political motivation, he had a simple explanation for what had happened in the dairy program he helped design.

The administration, Coelho said later, "decided the way to save money was to dump all those dairy cows on the market early and get beef prices down. Then when they had to go out and buy beef, as our farm bill required, they could get it cheaper. They bankrupted a lot of people in the process. They hurt innocent people. I'm very upset with the department."

By the way, Tony Coelho is the Democrats' chief fund-raiser in the House. Although English is unopposed for reelection, farm-district Democrats with opposition may find campaign fodder in the hearing record.

Curtain.