In a ceremony the Department of Justice carefully staged for the TV cameras a bit over a week ago, President Bush proposed adding $50 million to monies requested for bringing savings and loan criminals to justice. It was one more sign that the White House is at long last beginning to take seriously the notion that the S&L mess may put Bush on the defensive in 1992.

Democrats are convinced there is political pay dirt in the issue because the scandal developed on Ronald Reagan's watch. But because their own party's record isn't clean, it's likely to wind up a messy, dirty affair, with enough blame to go around. It is not clear at this point which party -- in voters' estimation -- will come off worse.

The origins of the crisis can be traced to deregulation at both federal and state levels between 1980 and 1983 that triggered mismanagement and excessive risk-taking, coupled with the fact that Uncle Sam stood by with $100,000 in insurance for every deposit.

Instead of facing up to the problem, the Reagan and Bush administrations, with congressional acquiescence, covered up the damage with accounting gimmickry. They keep postponing the day when the bills will have to be paid.

Two Democrats who have spoken out most clearly on Bush's vulnerability are Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia. Their states, and others in the East and Midwest, face some of the highest per-capita losses (through higher taxes to finance the cleanup), while states in the Southwest -- especially Texas, which had the biggest S&L failures -- will reap most of the benefit. (See Regions, Page H2, for breakdown of cleanup costs.)

"Taxpayers in the Northeast-Midwest region will be paying for the wave of entrepreneurialism that was unleashed in Texas for the next 40 years," says a new report by a congressional coalition representing those states with the heavier tax burden.

The report claims that Texas pays only 7 percent of the nation's taxes, but it is responsible for 59 percent of the cleanup costs as a result of thrifts there offering some of the highest interest rates in the nation.

In a recent speech to a Democratic forum in New Hampshire, Wilder cited a new S&L horror study, one by Stanford University that he said places "the true costs" of the cleanup at $1.4 trillion over the next four decades, including $500 billion in the next 10 years. A General Accounting Office report estimates the 30-year cost at $500 billion, including interest payments.

Wilder called on Bush to create a nonpartisan "Independent National Commission of Inquiry Into the Savings and Loan Scandal." It would sift out the differences in the various price tags that have been put on the cleanup, evaluate origins of the mess and come up with remedies and safeguards for the future.

"There are those who say that while Republicans must bear the responsibility for this scandal, any honest inquiry may embarrass some influential Democrats as well," Wilder said. "To them, I would say, 'Let the chips fall where they may.'

"The public doesn't care whether those at fault are Republicans or Democrats or independents. All that the people want are the facts. And regardless of who may be implicated, the people are entitled to both ... truth and justice."

Wilder has got it exactly right. Increasingly, congressional Democrats are coming to understand that as they properly assail the Reagan and Bush administrations for their responsibilities in the S&L mess, there will be political casualties in their own ranks.

There are four Democratic senators among the "Keating Five" -- Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, Alan Cranston of California, Don Riegle of Michigan and John Glenn of Ohio. Along with Republican John McCain of Arizona, their conduct in relation to the biggest single S&L failure -- Lincoln Savings and Loan of California -- is being investigated by their peers.

Another negative consideration for Democrats is the involvement of former House speaker Jim Wright of Texas with S&L lobbies. And beyond that, it was the Democrats who controlled the banking committees while Reagan sat in the White House.

In particular, key Democrats can be blamed for boosting the deposit-insurance limit from $40,000 to $100,000 in 1980. This move encouraged large depositors, through brokers, to seek out high rates from S&Ls. Thrift managers then dumped the money into risky investments, secure in the knowledge that Uncle Sam insured them against losses.

"In effect, the government assumed all the risks for hundreds of insolvent institutions," former Federal Reserve Board governor Sherman J. Maisel told a congressional committee earlier this year. "It was like staking poker players {to} piles of chips while allowing them to keep any winnings, even as the government agreed to pay all the losses."

Unbelievably, that particular barn door is still open. Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady has just boosted the number of remaining S&Ls that likely will be closed by the government. But any depositor can still get $100,000 worth of insurance for deposits at these "thrift" institutions.

Which party will take the initiative necessary for phasing down the insurance ceiling?