Television cameras and a weak seniority system have made Congress into an egalitarian, well-lighted political theater in recent years. Still, one Capitol Hill aphorism remains as true today as it was a century ago: A congressman is only as powerful as the legislative committee he controls. And that is why the negligible clout of the two Small Business Committees in Congress is a telling indicator of small business's status in Washington.

After more than three decades of existence, the House and Senate Small Business Committees remain, as a former staff member says, "a place where you're put, not where you try to go." Even Sen. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. (R-Conn.), who chairs the Senate committee, admits he never sought the job, and he accepted his chairmanship in 1981 only as a favor to his party's leadership. The House's Democratic Caucus, which drafts committee rules, counts Small Business as a "minor committee," along with such a political black hole as the Committee on the Post Office & Civil Service.

"Anybody in Congress whose business it is to write laws would feel hampered [on Small Business]," concedes Mark Ulven, an aide to Rep. Berkley Bedell (D-Iowa). This year, Bedell gave up a Small Business subcommittee chairmanship for a narrower, but nonetheless more powerful, position as chairman of an Agriculture subcommittee.

The problem is both institutional and political. The most important economic issues affecting small business -- such as taxes, trade, and regulation -- are outside the committees' purview. The committees can hold hearings on any topic, but when it comes time to write legislation, the bills inevitably land in a "major," or exclusive, committee such as Ways & Means in the House, where small-business advocates have little clout.

On the House side, these limitations are compounded by the agenda of the committee chairman, Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.), an eight-term congressman from Baltimore. Mitchell has shunned the broader economic issues affecting small business and has devoted himself instead to shoring up the Small Business Administration's loan and assistance programs, especially those targeted to minority-owned businesses like those in his own district.

"The Small Business Committee ought to be about jobs. It ought to be about opportunity," says Rep. Charles "Buddy" Roemer (D-La.). "The chairman puts too much emphasis on SBA oversight." Still, Roemer plays the prevailing political games, too: He and other committee backbenchers won't challenge Mitchell's priorities, because the chairman "has given me plenty of room to advance my own agenda. I let Parren be Parren, and he lets Buddy be Buddy."

Similar limitations beset the Senate committee, headed by Weicker. Perhaps the most liberal Republican in Congress, Weicker defeated the Administration's plan to abolish the SBA last winter. But because he has few political friends left, Weicker is unlikely to advance major small-business issues in the future.

The paralysis of the small-business committees is so ingrained that no legislator even seems interested in seizing the obvious political opportunity. Despite their institutional limitations, the committees could become, as Rep. Roemer puts it, "a place to talk about new approaches and experiment with new ideas." They could become a platform for a political movement based on the hottest area of the American economy, focusing on issues involving entrepreneurship, job creation, and decentralized economics -- a modern version of William Jennings Bryan's turn-of-the-century populism. What is missing today, of course, is Bryan's spiritual heir.

Opportunity does exist in this political vacuum. After the Administration's first tax-reform plan was unveiled last December, Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.) used his minority position on the Senate Small Business Committee to hold hearings in his home state on the impact of tax-reform proposals on small businesses. The result: Sasser and Albert Gore Jr., Tennessee's other Democratic senator, introduced a bill designed to force the Administration to reconsider some of its corporate tax provisions. When the second tax plan was released, it followed Sasser's plan to retain progressive income tax rates for small businesses filing as corporations -- a victory for small business.

If such activism were the rule, the Small Business Committees might one day shed their "minor" status and become a major political force.