Americans like to complain about Congress as they do about the weather, and Congress, like the weather, usually gives them plenty to complain about. That's inevitable: a legislature, made up of independently elected members, is never going to perform with the efficiency or the degree of probity that the public expects of an exalted institution. The Founding Fathers didn't expect Congress to be efficient; they just wanted it to be reasonably representative of the states and the people. And so it is. But that doesn't prevent people from complaining.

Or from reaching a consensus on what to complain about. You've probably heard most of it by now: Congress is able to do nothing but pass a budget and a tax bill; it's incapable of any other legislating. Congress is immobilized by delay and obstruction; it can't even pass most of the appropriations bills to fund the government. The power in Congress has been dispersed to too many subcommittees and petty baronies; it's impossible to get people together and get anything done -- or even to figure out what's happening. Congress has become so dependent on political action committees and so responsive to special interests that government is, in effect, up for sale.

There's something to each one of these complaints; whole books can be -- are being -- written about each one of them. But before you start raging, it's useful to sit back and reflect on just what Congress' function is in our government.

We all have a picture in our mind of Congress as a solemn deliberative body, setting national policy after deep reflection and careful debate. Daniel Webster rises on the 7th of March, 1850, the fate of the Union weighing heavily on his mind; disregarding the frenzied demands of constituents, he delivers his last great oration in support of Henry Clay's last great compromise. We tend to forget today that Webster's compromise included a provision requiring the federal government to hunt down human beings who escaped from slavery, and that Webster financed a lavish standard of living by demanding payments from the monied interests he championed. And even in Webster's day, most of Congress' work was not the setting of national policy, but the arbitration of local political disputes.

Today the business of Congress can be summed up as the superintending of a large, expensive, and variegated federal government. Occasions for sweeping policy decisions are relatively few. This Congress and the Reagan administration came to office determined to reduce significantly the size and scope of the federal government (aside from defense). To some extent that happened. But when you examine the overall figures, you will realize that the change was limited: government spending as a percentage of GNP will actually rise this year, because of the recession and defense spending increases. The Reaganites were able to chisel away at the welfare state. But they came nowhere close to dismantling it altogether. In the process, they demonstrated as conclusively as actors in the political process can ever demonstrate that the public doesn't want the welfare state dismantled, any more than it wanted the Pentagon cut back the way some McGovernites would have liked.

For two decades after World War II, the major issue in American politics was whether the welfare state would be expanded to something like its present size. That issue has long since been decided. It is Congress' job now to make decisions at the margins. Different parts of Congress work with different parts of the executive branch and various lobbying interests -- the famed iron triangles -- to set and supervise policy.

To criticize Congress for doing little more than passing the budget misses the point. Passing the budget, and making the decisions inherent in that process, is Congress' main work. The public does not want a lot of other legislation. We already have a Clean Air Act, for example, and the public doesn't want it repealed. We have strong civil rights statutes. We have a variety of welfare and aid-to-education programs. We have some health programs, and the public, rightly or wrongly, doesn't want national health insurance. Congress fiddles with these programs, cuts some and increases others. This is prosaic work: no 7th of March speeches. But it is Congress' work, and most of it gets done.

Of course, there is always delay and postponement and disorder. Many appropriations bills are never passed. Earnest attempts to tidy up the lawbooks -- like criminal law reform -- are obstructed. Too much is delayed until the end of session, when decisions are made hastily and sometimes haphazardly. Congress, like all of us, works to deadline. Negotiations between independent actors don't really start until a deadline looms: no one is going to retreat from an initial position early.

Given that job description, Congress is performing better than 10 or 20 years ago in two important respects. First, on major budget and macroeconomic issues it makes decisions in light of their likely overall effect, not piecemeal. Before the congressional budget process, Appropriations spent, Ways and Means and Finance taxed, and any deficit was the president's problem. Now the budget process forces Congress to face fiscal consequences of its decisions earlier, and to do something about them. Those who bemoan today's large deficits ought to consider how much larger they would have been under the old system.

The budget resolutions that Congress passes are not, technically, substitutes for appropriations; but as a practical matter they provide guidance to federal agencies in their day-to-day work. The budget process also imposes deadlines. Congress is a long way now from the days when a dispute about meeting rooms between two octogenarians kept an appropriations conference committee from convening for months.

The second way in which Congress' performance has improved is that its treatment of smaller issues is more competent, less parochial, and more subject to review than such things used to be. Some critics are wistful for the good old days when they could find out what was happening up on the Hill in just one telephone call or or over one boozy lunch. Now it takes a lot more legwork. Committee chairmen are no longer reliable autocrats: in the House they are elected by their fellow Democrats, and in the Senate their tenure is threatened these days by the tenuousness of the Republican majority. Subcommittees have proliferated, to the point where there are several hundred; every senator chairs or is ranking minority member on several, and most House members are too. The nitty-gritty work -- not just drafting legislation, but understanding what is going on in the government, and how it might be changed -- takes place mostly in subcommittee. Committees, with their large memberships, tend to ratify subcommittees' decisions or at least to accept the structuring of the debate as it comes from subcommittee.

But not that many subcommittees really matter. In the Senate, the change of party control in 1981 ousted dozens of Democratic staffers who, with friends in government agencies and various lobbies, had been determining government policy in dozens of little areas. These entrepreneurs of government, who thought up programs, wrote testimony, assembled bipartisan support, and then often staffed the executive branch, are mostly gone. The Republicans who replaced them -- with some notable exceptions -- seem much less skillful, unable in most cases to dismantle the programs their predecessors built.

In the House, some subcommittees are more equal than others. No longer does seniority determine chairmanships: subcommittee chairmen are usually elected by committee members. As a result, there is a kind of meritocracy. There are perhaps a dozen or so really important subcommittees, and they are chaired almost entirely by qualified people. Some have seniority (Peter Rodino and Don Edwards on the key Judiciary subcommittees, which have bottled up all kinds of right-wing legislation); others were first elected in 1974 (Henry Waxman of Health and Timothy Wirth of Communications). Budget Committee members are elected, not chosen by seniority; and so young members like Jim Jones (first elected in 1972), David Obey (1969), Leon Panetta (1976), Norman Mineta (1974), and Richard Gephardt (1976) play key roles. No one controls the process, as in the old days; these chairmen have to count their votes carefully, keep in close touch with their colleagues and be careful not to exceed the bounds of fair play. But this is the way the business of legislating should be conducted, and though it may be hard, it is not beyond the ingenuity of the press or the interested citizen, much less the lobbyist, to understand.

Not many have appreciated the skill of these subcommittee chairmen, because they don't have their names on new laws. This is partly because their primary goal, in the first Reagan years, is to prevent laws from being repealed. But even when bills aren't passed, skillful subcommittee chairmen can affect executive branch action, can in effect superintend the operation of government.

In effect, Congress in the last decade has begun to operate much more like a good state legislature. Leadership is stronger, partly because of the personal competence of Howard Baker and Tip O'Neill, but partly for institutional reasons as well. The Republican Party, with its ability to raise large sums for campaigns and to rally, in 1980 and 1981 at least, almost its entire ranks in support of specific programs, has provided the kind of responsible party government David Broder and others have called for over the years. On the House side, the leadership is accountable to a Democratic Caucus that is diverse and unwilling simply to follow orders or to let the seniority system rule. In 1971, Carl Albert became speaker because 18 years before Sam Rayburn and John McCormack chose him for a leadership post. The next speaker will not be chosen that way, and those who want the job know it.

Tip O'Neill's first experience as a speaker was in the Great and General Court of Massachusetts, where he could summarily dismiss committee chairmen who did not go along with his leadership; he was subject only to the proviso that he had to keep the support of a majority of the caucus. He has used various devices -- a special energy committee in 1977, close vigilance over the Budget Committee in 1981 and 1982 -- to produce in the House something closer to that than has been seen in many years.

If the legislative process has changed, and become more like that in a state legislature, so has the reelection process. Ten years ago most congressmen got reelected because they were congressmen. The free mailing privilege and other accoutrements of incumbency gave House incumbents an advantage over challengers worth several hundred thousand dollars at a time when that amount was very seldom spent in House races. Even in Senate contests, opposition was often so weak that in a given year about half the senators, with their name identification advantage, effectively drew byes. In 1968, a year of terrible political turbulence, more incumbent congressmen were returned to office than in any other year in history. Congressional elections in most American districts were no more seriously contested than in one-party Mexico.

Now that's changed. By 1976, voters were focusing their discontent on incumbent senators, and in 1976, 1978, and 1980, nearly half the incumbents were defeated for reelection. As for the House, legions of idealistic young challengers arose: anti- Vietnam War and environmentalist liberals in 1972 and 1976, free-market and morally traditional conservatives in 1978 and 1980. All used against incumbents not only issues but the argument that they would work harder and keep more assiduously in touch with constituents. As a result, the typical young congressman spends between 40 and 50 weekends in his district each year.

He also spends unprecedented amounts on his campaigns. The Republican Party raised in party funds and through friendly PACs about $300,000 in 1980 and more than $400,000 in 1982 for candidates in about 100 targeted races. Democrats have tried to match them, raising money from a variety of sources. These include the now-famous PACs, both small PACs with very specialized interests (used car dealers, for example) and much larger PACs with general interests and often some pet projects (examples include the American Medical Association and the United Auto Workers).

Some have charged that the need to raise so much money for campaigns has corrupted the political process. Elizabeth Drew, in her recent New Yorker articles, has described masterfully the atmosphere this creates. It distorts the legislative process on minor issues, like the Federal Trade Commission regulation that the used-car dealers' PAC persuaded Congress to overturn; and it may distort the legislative process on major issues as well, making members more responsive to lobbyists who represent business and other well-organized interests than to their constituents generally.

Of course, one reason congressmen could decide issues alone with their consciences in the early 1970s was that they were effectively unopposed; and if the concern is that Democrats are being led, by the need for PAC money, to be overly favorable to business, one solution would be for the Democratic Party to develop the capacity to raise money from many small contributors which the Republican Party has developed.

Congress today is a system that rewards the politically adept. It is open both to outside challenges and to competent lobbying; if power is not distributed proportionately over the whole population, maybe that's because neither is interest in government. Far from being unresponsive, Congress is responsive, with hair-trigger accuracy, to the views of the voting public. Remember that the drive to cut government spending and taxes did not begin with the 1980 election. As far back as 1978, a Democratic Congress cut the capital gains tax; and it was a Carter Congress that voted to phase out oil price controls. And in making its decisions on budget and tax bills in the summer of 1982, Congress provided the mid-course correction voters demanded later in the November elections.

The spectacle of politically adept special interests gaining special favors in return for campaign contributions: this is the underside of a Congress that attends competently to the business of the superintendency of the government at a time when the nation is obsessed with no overriding causes and yet some interests can be vastly affected by Congress' acts. But even a reform like public financing seems unlikely to seal Congress away from the influence of money; Elizabeth Drew shows how in presidential politics, despite public financing, money has seeped through the interstices and flooded the process once again. A competent, meritocratic, responsive legislature is going to represent a society in rough proportions to its citizens' interests and political adeptness; in resolving conflicts between difficult goals it is likely to reflect the unwillingness of a public used to many good things to decide which of them it wants most when times get tough.

We can rage like Lear, we can wish for more Websters, we can exhort and protest, we can certainly make useful reforms here and there. But we should remember that Congress is a politically responsive legislature -- and generally it's going to act like one.