THE dispute revolves around an arcane rule on disclosure in the United States House of Representatives. But it has escalated into a full-throated political battle - with all the symbolism Washington can produce - over power, how Congress operates, and the best way to fashion laws in a democratic society.
It is the focus of the latest populist crusade against Washington. It lies at the heart of a reform drive by rebellious Republicans, freshmen, and other lawmakers, one that is bringing a vigorous rejoinder from the Democratic leadership.
``The issue is symbolic and has become part of the Congress-bashing agenda,'' says Thomas Mann, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. ``There is no stopping it now.''
All the fuss is over a seldom-used procedure under which lawmakers can force legislation to the House floor. Members who believe a bill has been bottled up in committee can force a vote by garnering 218 signatures among fellow lawmakers. Under current rules, the names of lawmakers who support these so-called discharge petitions are not disclosed unless a majority signs.
Critics charge that keeping the names secret makes it harder to put public pressure on holdouts and opens the system to abuse: House members can co-sponsor legislation and lead constituents into believing that they had signed a discharge petition when they had not.
But supporters say the obscure rule acts - as originally intended - as a needed check against momentarily popular ideas becoming bad laws.
This week, opponents won a modest victory in their efforts to change the process. They collected the last of 218 signatures needed to force a floor vote on a proposal by Rep. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma that would make petition-signers' names public. Mr. Inhofe's resolution, itself, has been bottled up in the Rules Committee.
``This is the first step toward a more honest and more responsive legislative body,'' Inhofe says.
Until recently, the fight over the nondisclosure rule was one of those internal political piques that only Roll Call, a newspaper about Capitol Hill, might cover, and even the newspaper often relegated it to inside pages.
But then the procedure became the cause cbre of a few editorial writers, talk-show hosts like conservative Rush Limbaugh, and Ross Perot's United We Stand America group. Suddenly, the klieg lights were on and press conferences were being held inside the Beltway this week.
Standing before one camera, along with Inhofe and other advocates of lifting the secrecy rule, was Mr. Perot.
He said the collection of 218 names needed to force a vote on the issue marked a ``bold first step to get real reform'' on Capitol Hill.
``If we can't open up the process, then I think we have failed the American people,'' added Rep. Timothy Penny (D) of Minnesota, 1 of 44 Democrats in the House to sign the insurgents' petition, along with all but two Republicans.
Advocates of changing the process believe that it will lead to issues that they claim are unfairly held up in committees getting voted on - such as term limits, a balanced-budget amendment, and line-item veto.
Democratic leaders counter that while it may make a nice sound bite to talk about dropping ``gag'' rules, the result would be bad lawmaking. Rep. Joseph Moakley (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Rules Committee, says opening up the process would make it easier for ``special interests and pressure groups to promote their own agendas.''
He and others say it would lead to bills being sent willy-nilly to the floor for a vote without going through the give-and-take of the committee system.
``You can't run a country by radio talk shows,'' says Rep. Mike Synar (D) of Oklahoma. ``Congress should not immediately reflect every shift of the public on issues.''
Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says when the rule was instituted 63 years ago, it was intended to make Congress more deliberative.
The idea was to frame a system that allowed committees to immerse themselves in legislation details in the hope that they would come up with a reasoned judgment. Making petition names public, he says, would result in ``foolish laws'' and add to the deficit.
Instead of opposing the rule change when it comes up for a vote this month, Democratic leaders will probably offer an alternative.