On the surface it seems like a vote of modest import, the decision by a House subcommittee on aid to El Salvador. But it actually is of real significance, for it sends two powerful messages - one to the Salvadorean government and military, the other to the Reagan administration.
Through the vote by the Democratic-controlled House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, Congress is telling El Salvador that unless death squad activities are curbed, Congress will cut off virtually all US military and economic aid. Such action likely would result in a guerrilla victory.
Congress thus is strengthening the hand of the Reagan administration, which privately and publicly has been pressuring the Salvadoreans to end right-wing terrorism. The administration can point out to Salvadorean leaders that it may make the policy, but that Congress appropriates the money. The day the subcommittee voted, Secretary of State George Shultz was telling Congress that as a ''last resort'' the US would cease aid to Salvador if it failed to control terrorism from the right.
The other message was to the Reagan administration: that many in Congress are disturbed by what they see as a failing US policy in El Salvador, and elsewhere in Central America. They want US policy to include an effort to push both sides in the Salvadorean struggle to reach a political settlement. If the administration wants Congress to approve its recommendations - essentially those of the Kissinger commission - for increased military and economic aid, this argument goes, the administration first must work with Congress to develop a consensus on what US policy should be.
An increasing number of members of Congress feel they have been ignored in the formulation of US foreign policy - especially in Lebanon and Central America. Two things upset them now. One is blame by Secretary Shultz that the Congress-passed War Powers Resolution is the reason administration policy failed in Lebanon: Congressmen argue the policy itself was flawed.
The second is what they view as an administration effort to bypass Congress by using emergency funds to give additional military aid to El Salvador now. Both through the subcommittee vote, which trimmed the Reagan request for military aid, and in a letter to Secretary Shultz by Rep. Clarence D. Long (D) of Maryland, Congress is warning that if the administration persisted in such action, it would jeopardize the entire economic and military aid package for Central America.