When Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) and two other GOP members of a House Appropriations subcommittee took up the cause of a Richmond-based trucking company involved in a labor-management dispute before the National Labor Relations Board, they did what congressmen often do in such circumstances.

They wrote letters to the NLRB on behalf of the company, Overnite Transportation Co. The communications strongly suggested that the agency should be more evenhanded in its handling of Teamsters Union complaints of unfair labor practices.

But after the NLRB went ahead anyway and voted, 3 to 2, to seek an injunction forcing Overnite to halt unfair practices, Dickey took it one step further. At a July 11 session of the subcommittee attended by a lobbyist for the trucking company, he introduced an amendment to double the $26 million cut in the NLRB's 1996 budget and shift the savings to the Head Start program.

"I'd rather give the money to children than to lawyers," said Dickey, whose amendment passed 8 to 6, with the votes of the two other letter writers, Reps. Dan Miller (R-Fla.) and Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.). Another Dickey initiative requires four out of five NLRB members to approve injunctions against employers.

It was an example of the unusual, hardball tactics being employed by House Republicans, especially newer ones, in bringing to heel federal agencies they believe are not giving business a fair break.

Dickey said the NLRB, with more than 600 lawyers, is too large and produces unnecessary litigation costly to taxpayers and business. But Dickey acknowledged the NLRB's insistence on issuing an injunction in the Overnite case played a role. "They seemed to be acting as if there wasn't another side," he said.

That approach has raised eyebrows on the Appropriations Committee, where some veteran members question the propriety of using the power of the purse against agencies in such a direct way. "To my way of thinking, you don't cut judicial bodies because they make decisions you don't like," said Rep. John Edward Porter (R-Ill.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds the NLRB and the sole Republican voting against the Dickey amendment.

Today the full House Appropriations Committee takes up the bill containing the slashed appropriation for the NLRB. Under the Dickey amendment, the agency would receive $123 million in 1996, a 30 percent cut from this year that officials say would be "devastating." Officials warned that many of the 52 regional and local offices would have to be closed.

The 60-year-old NLRB is a quasi-judicial agency charged with preventing unfair labor practices by employers and unions, and safeguarding employee rights to organize unions. While the majority of complaints before it are filed against employers, about 15 percent are against unions.

"We are a country committed to the rule of law," Porter said yesterday. "When you get to a cut of 30 percent, you're simply going to create a huge backlog."

Dickey, a second-term congressman who owns two Taco Bell franchises and other small businesses in his home town of Pine Bluff, Ark., attracted attention earlier this year when he pushed through another appropriations amendment cutting funds for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He announced that he had personal experience with OSHA, which fined his family-owned sign company for ventilation violations last year.

Unlike that situation, Dickey said, he has never had any dealings with the NLRB resulting from his businesses.

At a subcommittee hearing in February he lambasted NLRB officials for asking for more money. Subsequently, he said, he received a call from a Little Rock-based official of Union Pacific, Overnite's parent company, asking him to meet with Overnite officials.

Overnite, the nation's largest nonunion trucking company with 14,000 employees, has been attempting since December to stave off an effort by the Teamsters to represent workers at a number of terminals. But since late 1994, the Teamsters have filed 40 complaints covering hundreds of alleged unfair practices by Overnite.

The complaints led NLRB attorneys to consider seeking a so-called 10j injunction against Overnite, a procedure that often involves an employer's taking formal steps to curtail unfair practices.

Representing Overnite before the NLRB are two former board members, John R. Raudabaugh and Clifford R. Oviatt Jr. Meanwhile, the company and Union Pacific's lobbyists sought help from Virginia's House members and GOP leaders.

On May 22, Bonilla wrote the NLRB that its actions against Overnite appeared "unjust." Miller, in a letter sent the same day in support of Overnite, noted that "all parts of the federal government are being reviewed for ways to cut spending."

But on June 12, the NLRB voted to seek the injunction. Although Overnite had agreed to hold a nationwide election, the NLRB still wanted firm guarantees it would be held under fair conditions, government sources said.

Eight days later, Dickey wrote NLRB Chairman William B. Gould IV that he was "stunned." He called the 10j process "an outrage," and said the American public "demands that their tax dollars be spent in a more economical fashion." CAPTION: REP. JAY DICKEY