FROM 1961 1986, politics in Washington has ridden a roller coaster of emotions to arrive again at a time of apparent routine. A popular president stares down Pennsylvania Avenue at a fretful and balky Congress, worried about the next election. On the surface, it's a thoroughly familiar scene. As the aging World War II vets say, Situation Normal -- All Fouled Up. Washington SNAFU. It's a clich,e -- a redundancy.

But the 25-year ride from John F. Kennedy's capital to Ronald Reagan's has seen a vast and dramatic change in the political landscape of this city. Talking to some of the survivors of tht quarter-century, two impressions are dominant:

Washington has become a far more agreeable place for politicians to live. And it has become a far worse place for them to do the business of governing.

They talk of a governmental city where elected officials are all but buried in growing legislative and executive bureaucracies; where lobbyists promote special interests more effectively than leaders hold out a vision of the national interest; where everyone but the president is subjected to the demeaning pressures of perpetual fund-raising; and where everyone, including the president, can gain more credit from the ever-present media by public relations ploys than by substantive policy work.

"Today, it seems as if we just hurtle from one event to another -- and without time to judge the consequences of what we've done," says retiring Sen. Charles McC. Mathias (R- Md.). "It just doesn't seem as if there are clear themes anymore."

Mathias' view is echoed by many of the current and former members of Congress of both parties interviewed for this article. But their testimony, though near-unanimous, may not carry much weight with the skeptics. These members are looking down on Washington from the perspective of Capitol Hill, where almost all of them launched their careers and where some of them are still serving. Is that the wrong angle for viewing Washington politics? Some may think so, but I do not.

Ever since I started working here, 30 years ago, I have found that you can get a better fix on the politics of this city by hanging out in the Speaker's Lobby of the House of Representatives and by walking the corridors of the Senate office buildings than by being any other place in town. Members of Congress are shrewd judges of each other; they make candid assessments of the president, the White House staff and the Cabinet; they pick their way through masses of official and back-channel information to judge the policy issues headed their way; and, above all, they are attuned to the quaverings of public opinion back home.

Especially with the rapid turnover in the White House -- where six men have served in the past quarter-century -- it is Congress that offers a continuous look inside Washington politics.

That is why I take seriously the testimony of these veteran members of Congress and former members. What they are describing, it seems to me, is the submergence of leadership in a swamp of conflicting pressures. Part of the problem is the times. Many of the current leaders are of the World War II generation, not as spry or as energetic as they once were. They hold the levers of power, but their grip is not strong.

The people who aspire to succeed them are eager, well trained and well educated. But they come from a generation whose formative years enshrined the commandment to "do your own thing." And so far, at least, they seem more adept at promoting their own careers than any larger cause. As newcomers to Congress in the 1970s, these juniors overthrew the seniority system and rejected their predecessors' habits of deference. Now many of them find themselves frustrated by the maze of separate power centers their own aspirations created.

But there is more to it than that. We are talking not just about individuals but about an institution, Congress, that is misunderstood and, in an ironic sense, underestimated.

A few years ago, a political scientist named Morris P. Fiorina was struck by the success that presidential candidates were having in running against "the Washington establishment." He set out to see if there were such a thing, and if so, what it was.

"There is a Washington establishment," he wrote. "In fact, it is a hydra with each head only marginally concerned with the others' existence. These establishments are not malevolent, centrally directed conspiracies against the American people. Rather, they are unconsciously evolved and evolving networks of congressmen, bureaucrats, and organized subgroups of the citizenry -- all seeking to achieve their own goals. Contrary to what is popularly believed, the bureaucrats are not the problem. Congressmen are. The Congress is the key to the Washington establishment. The Congress created the establishment, sustains it, and most likely will continue to sustain and even expand it."

That judgment, offered in a 1977 paperback, has been amply justified by the developments of the Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan years. Despite the strictures of these two self-proclaimed "outsiders," staffs and budgets of government have continued to expand -- not least on Capitol Hill itself. The political underbrush of Washington politics -- the network of lobbyists, lawyers, researchers, publicists, campaign consultants and fund-raisers -- has also grown thicker. The ranks of reporters, photographers, microphone-era-holders who help set the tone of the city's politics have increased. That is why it is so disturbing to find so many of the veterans of Capitol Hill lamenting the changes they have seen.

Just what is their complaint? Well, let's be clear about what it is not. It is not a complaint about the city, nor is it the tired argument that American government would be closer to the people if the capital were in Springfield, Mo., or Topeka, Kan. The politicians who have worked in Whington love Washington -- and think it's getting better all the time as a city. At the same time, they deny that they are distant -- psychologically or politically -- from the folks they represent back home.

IF PEOPLE believed the testimonials their members of Congress give Washington, this city would have a growth rate comparable to Phoenix.

Robert F. Ellsworth, a former representative from Kansas, says that when he came to the House in 1961, Washington "was a backwater. Nobody went to Washington except for politics, and when you got here, there was nothing to do but politics. But now, Washington might as well be Paris . . . It's terrific."

And many, too, note the social change from a semi-colonial, largely black city, surrounded by mainly segregated suburbs, and run by absentee white overseers in Congress. "The federal government controlled the city, as I think the Founding Fathers intended," says Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who was a Democrat 25 years ago. "But I must say, there has been tremendous progress since Washington got its own mayor and city council."

But can you live in Georgetown or on Capitol Hill and still represent Detroit?

Absolutely, says Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). "A member has to stay close to his district, or he's not going to stay here. A lot has changed since I came here in 1955, but that rule still applies."

In one sense, staying in touch has become more difficult. Congress adjourned on Sept. 1 in 1960 and on Sept. 27 in 1961. Of late, the legislators count themselves lucky if they are finished before Christmas. But members have been inventive about ways to stay in touch. "Since we have the WATS lines up here," Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), a 25-year veteran, says, "I make four or five times as many calls to the district as I used to." Today, members of Congress are constantly a presence in their distrcts -- via flying visits, television and radio tapes, mailings, and scattered home offices -- even while they spend more and more of their year working in Washington.

If lawmakers have figured out how to live more of their lives in a metropolitan area of surpassing charm, and still stay closely in touch with their constituents, then why are so many veteran members disturbed about what they see happening? Why indeed? On the surface, the system political scientist Fiorina describes in his book "Congress: Keystone of the Washington Establishment" seems to be working. The main goal of members of Congress, he said, is reelection; and in 1984, 92.8 percent of the senators and representatives seeking another term were successful. Why then do they complain?

Ex-representative Henry S. Reuss of Wisconsin, who came from Milwaukee in 1955 and retired in 1982, summarizes the indictment:

"While the level of people in Congress today is higher than it's ever been in terms of education and general ability, Congress is not as effective as it was, nor as joyous a place to be as it was 25 years ago. Campaigns that used to cost $15- often cost $200- even $500,000. And that puts a psychological mortgage on people, even if it doesn't distort their judgment.

"The second reason that things aren't as joyous as (at) an earlier time is that public relations and manipulation of the media are increasingly what people in Congress have to do. A certain amount of that is okay; it's part of the game. But it used to be a member of Congress could genuinely make himself an expert in a field or two and be useful . . . But now there's an imperative to look like a universal genius, so too much time is spent on public relations and too little on substantive work.

"Third, Congress is overrun with subcommittees and staff, as a result of a revolution that went too far. There was a successful move in th 1970s to come to grips with the Neanderthal rigidity of seniority and committee chairman autocracy . . . But in the House, we went overboard . . . there is no focusing of responsibility . . . " These words -- coming from a liberal Democrat -- echo many of the traditional conservative complaints. Let's sort them out, and look at them more closely, through the eyes of other veterans of the last 25 years. They hand down a four- point indictment:

1.Congress has become bogged down in the intricacies of its own process, the diffusion of its own power, and the increase of its own workload.

"We've reached the point," says Sen. Robert T. Stafford (R-Vt.), who came to Congress 25 years ago, "where everyone in the Senate can institute a filibuster to get his own way on matters that may be important to him but not to the nation. Time after time, the Senate is just frustrated."

That kind of autonomy -- or anarhy -- was not the pattern that prevailed when Stafford and others started. The old Congress was very much a pyramidal place. Dingell recalls that when he came in the mid-1950s, House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson "met every evening in H-128, the 'Board of Education' room, over bourbon and branch water. They talked about what had happened that day, what they wanted to have happen tomorrow, and what they thought was good for the country. They had a close relationship . . . You didn't have the kind of divided structure you have here now, with a Senate at war with the House, and both of them at war, on different issues, with the White House." The old Congress was very much of a southern and western institution. Rayburn and Johnson were both Texans, of course, and when Johnson moved into the vice presidency in 1961, his successor as majority leader was Mike Mansfield of Montana. To read the roster of committee chairmen from the 1961 Congressional Directory is to remind oneself of the fact that the Civil War's outcome was not really acknowledged in the Capitol building. On the Senate side, the chairmen of the standing committees came from 13 states -- every one of them south of the Mason-Dixon line or west of the Rockies.

Nor was the House much different. Fourteen of the 20 standing committee chairmen were southerners or westerners. This posed a serious challenge for the new president from Massachusetts, who had to expend a sizable chunk of his skimpy political capital early in 1981 on a 217-212 roll-call vote to "pack" the House Rules Committee. That allowed him to bring some bills to the floor despite the opposition of "Judge" Howard W. Smith of Virginia, its conservative Democratic chairman.

The chairmen like Smith ruled with an iron hand; and while it was hard on young presidents -- and junior members of Congress -- there was no doubt where the power lay. Many of the veterans, looking back, see that accountability as having vanished somewhere in the reforms of the 1970s and the increase in the scale of government.

The southerners, unsurprisingly, are most sensitive to the change. "The budget we're dealing with is so much bigger," says Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), who came to the Senate in 1947. "The volume of work is much greater now . . . In the old days, senators really mastered the subject matter in their areas of specialization, and the presentations they made on the floor showed that mastery. It's just not as thorough now."

It is not just the southerners who feel that way. George McGovern of South Dakota, a liberal voice from 1963 through 1980, says, "The Senate has deteriorated as an institution. It's not as inspiring a place . . . In the 1960s and early 1970s, we had a lot of senators who could stand up on the floor and debate issues with conviction . . . They were strong f"

As for the House, Udall recalls that in the '60s and '70s, he was part of the movement to break the seniority system and reduce the power of the committee chairmen. Now chairman of the Interior Committee, he says, "We wanted to democratize the place, and we've done that, but maybe we overshot a bit . . . I think about 75 percent of the Democrats have subcommittee chairmanships; but if everybody's in charge, nobody's in charge."

In fact, there are 165 different people in the House and Senate who can answer to the proud title, "Mr. Chairman," having been given committees or subcommittees of their own. With the spread of power has come a massive increase in staff. In the past quarter-century, the number of employes of Congress has jumped 250 percent (to 17,963) -- a ratio of about 33 of them to every one elected official.

2.There is insufficient deference to leaders who have earned that respect by their expertise and experiene. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, who in 1980 left the Senate after 21 years to become secretary of state, recalls enjoying the invisibility that was expected of junior senators in his early years. "I remember looking up to the older members," he says, "watching the Senate parade to the inaugural stand on January 20 or over to the House for a joint session. They all seemed to be impressive figures . . . somehow, taller than today's senators . . . The Senate was a more structured and hierarchical place than it is today, but it was more comfortable, too."

Structure and predictability are "comfortable" qualities, but may be regarded as dispensable. What is seri- ously lacking, so the veterans say, is the sense of responsibility that went with them.

"I don't want to denigrate the abilities of the people there today," says former senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky. "These people in the House and Senare pretty able. But they don't seem to respond to their leaders. There were times, particularly in foreign affairs, when you saw Republicans and Democrats rise to the challenge of resolving great issues, but we don't see that so often now."

The feelings about the House are no different. John B. Anderson of Illinois, who came to the House in 1961 and left in 1980 to run for president, dropping his Republican Party ties in the process, says there has been a revolution. "When I came," he says, "the norm was one of deference to your elders. The seniority system was in full and unbridled control of the place. We ended automatic seniority in 1971 on the Republican side and the Democrats did the same in 1975; and now, my gosh, the place is filled with policy entrepreneurs doing their own thing. You have two freshmen like Phil Gramm and Warren Rudman (senators from Texas and New Hampshire, respectively) just grabbing the reins (with their deficit- control proposal) and the establishment falls into line . . . "

This sense that anyone may appoint himself commander of any issue by promoting any clever idea may unfairly minimize the role of the elected leadership. But you would have a hard time convincing the veterans that something of value has not been lost along the way.

3.There are too many rewards -- especially in coveted media attention -- for the showoffs, and not enough incentives for those who really do the work.

Rep. Neal Smith (D-Iowa), a 27-year veteran, says that television-dominated campaigns have produced a different -- and inferior -- breed of congressmen. "The process of getting here . . . has changed members' attitudes and behavior," he says. "We see people who come here and do nothing, or almost nothing, but public relations. And it pays off. But the more members try to save themselves for the next election, the less and less people ar carrying the load here . . . and that's not a good development at all."

Congress has always had a quota of show-horses and of work-horses; but unless the veterans are misreading the signs, the ratio is shifting in an unhealthy direction.

4.The pressures on members of Congress -- especially the campaign finance demands -- have grown beyond safe limits.

The average cost of a House candidacy hit $302,000 in 1984 and a Senate bid, $1,087,000. Some are sanguine about these sums, but Richard S. Schweiker, representative and senator from Pennsylvania and later secretary of Health and Human Services in the first Reagan Cabinet, says "We've reached the point where a member of Congress has to be either a millionaire or a continual fund-raiser, and that's a tragic commentary on where we're going."

The political obligations that go with financial contributions concern many people, but George McGovern is probably right when he says, "The special interests have always been here. I feel overwhelmed sometimes by the numbers: when you go to a party now, it seems like every third person you meet is working on some kind of (lobbying) campaign. But I've never regarded lobbyists as evil."

Evil or good, the lawyers and lobbyists have certainly become ubiquitous. Between 1960 and today, the number of lawyers in Washington has doubled to 25,000. But that is nothing compared to the increase in lobbyists. Their numbers have gone from 365 to 7,600, according to registrations with the clerk of the House.

The other great growth area has been with press and television. The number of journalists accredited to Congress has increased from 1,500 to 4,200 in the last quarter-century.

Not only have the numbers multiplied, but the intrusiveness of the media has grown. Frank Cormier, an Associated Press veteran, says, "The adversarial relationship has become more acute. There was a much greater ncy then to be protective of sources in general and politicians in particular. They don't get that kind of coddling now. Reporters saw John Kennedy in the back seat of a limousine with a woman who wasn't his wife, and nothing was said or written. Today, there would be tremendous competitive pressures to report that."

Charles B. Seib, the former managing editor of the former Washington Star, agrees that on topics large and small, reporters have become "much more questioning."

"Today's reporters are much more qualified to do the job the press has to do," Seib said, "but the more you take on yourself, the more responsibilities you have, and I think the press has been a little laggard in meeting them."

Whether out of deference or fear or discretion, few of the active politicians interviewed for this article would assert that the journalistic climate in Washington has made it harder or more disagreeable for them to do their jobs.

Rep. Jim Wright (D-Tex.) came as close as anybody to suggesting that the media climate in Washington has gotten meaner, when he said that "for a time after Watergate, I had the feeling that young journalists thought their only route to fame and fortune was to bring down some high public figure . . . It seemed to be a rite of passage into being a journalist to demonstrate that you had utter and rich contempt for public officials. I don't discern that same feeling now."

IF CONGRESS is the heart of the Washington establishment, as Fiorina claims, then Wright as the probable Speaker of the House next year is the man who faces the personal challenge of trying to make it work. His assessment may constitute the last word on how much has changed since he arrived as a 33-year-old freshman in 1955.

"It's a more participatory and less authoritarian society in which we live and work now," he says of Capitol Hill. 'I'm not sure if it is more or less enjoyable. It's busier. There is less time available for the easy, flowing camaraderie that characterized our personal relationships 25 years ago. The House is in session later and longer. The mail volume and the caseload is more voluminous. But when it comes to our work as legislators, persuasion is the coin of the realm. And that's pretty healthy for a democracy."

Healthy or not, it seems clear that Washington politics will not go back to what it was a quarter-century ago. Neither the cultural and recreational amenities of the capital area nor the growth of its lawyer-lobbyist-journalist subculture will be eradicated. Congress -- the true heart of the Washington establishment -- will grope with its increased workload and try to master its own growing bureaucracy.

Wright -- or someone else -- may grasp the tools of formal leadership, but no Speaker can shut down the publicity tools available todividual members -- or curb their impulse to do their own thing.

Whether the national interest emerges from this proc presidents -- or anyone else -- persuasion will continue to be the coin of the realm.