TO comprehend murky Capitol Hill business, it's often necessary to breast-stroke up the river of contention to its source and ask knowledgeable people: ''What's the politics of this?'' The answer, surprisingly, often has nothing material to do with the issue.
That sadly seems to be the case with the cuts in a House committee of 45 percent in public broadcasting funding for the next two fiscal years, and, by extension, the Republican Party's assault on federal arts funding. The answer to the politics of it is disturbing and alienating.
The persistently curious learn that Speaker Newt Gingrich's purpose in pressing the public broadcasting issue has nothing to do with the merits of the matter. It is to shore up his political power base. The rewards involve his presidential ambitions, perhaps as soon as 1996 should Sens. Bob Dole and Phil Gramm falter, but no later than the year 2000.
Insightful Washingtonians explain that Mr. Gingrich is using the public broadcasting issue as a pawn to gain leverage with his constituency -- middle American, working-class white nativists. Sen. Joe McCarthy discovered that their hot buttons fervently responded in the 1950s to such incitements as the internal ''communist'' menace and ''anti-eggheadism.'' They now do the same when summoned to a mythic culture war against those insidious ''self-selected elites using your tax money and my tax money to pay off their friends.''
The Speaker has been testing out these rhetorical sallies in motivational surveys and focus groups. They have confirmed the emotional potency of the battle cry ''Down with the intelligentsia.'' Some Americans have deeply rooted feelings that equate high culture with a mythic class of privileged Americans who stand for disloyalty and heterodoxy.
AS budget cuts work their way through the House, Gingrich fully controls the process. He is, after all, the ultimate dispenser of doles from the Republican House campaign purse. Key committee chairmen have taken on staffers hired by the Gingrich machine to ensure discipline.
In this brand of governance, there is little room for compromise. Were Gingrich willing to accommodate the process over public broadcasting, he could easily find a host of legitimate alternative funding possibilities:
*Dedicate to public broadcasting just 10 percent of the federal take to date from the auctioning of broadcast frequencies for pagers, personal data, and wireless telephone services. This would deliver $750 million and keep the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) going for two more fiscal years while ways are studied to permanently secure its future.
*The lucrative commercial radio and television industry brings in more than $20 billion a year. Yet commercial stations pay absolutely nothing to the federal government for their licensed frequency assignments. A spectrum tax on their yearly use of the public airwaves, based on earnings, would provide many millions annually for the operation of high-quality public radio and television.
*Corporate advertising is fully deductible on income taxes. Reducing the write-off by just 20 percent would produce more than $4 billion annually for the federal treasury and a permanent endowment to support and improve public broadcasting.
*A 5 percent excise levy on television sets would collect an estimated $450 million a year for public broadcasting, significantly more than the current federal CPB subsidy. The Carnegie Commission on Educational Television proposed such a levy in its 1967 report. Congress failed to act.
*If its 90 million weekly viewers and listeners each gave $5 annually, either by direct subscription or income-tax checkoff, the public broadcasting system could be forever liberated from victimization by the politics of opportunism.
The Senate now carries the weighty responsibility to impose a higher standard. It must support the considered will of past Congresses by defending federal funding for high-quality broadcasting and the arts.
The public will is being thwarted and undermined. A recent Harris survey commissioned by Business Week magazine found that Americans heavily oppose the elimination of the CPB -- by 62 to 35 percent. The only option for voters is to increase pressure on Republican legislators on the district level, holding them responsible for their Speaker's actions.