The governors would know better.

The biggest gap in elective politics these days is not between Republicans and Democrats. It is the gap between state-level officials who are meeting responsibilities and gaining confidence and federal officials who are falling down in their jobs and suffering a loss of self-esteem.

To move from a meeting of Republican governors in Wilmington to the sessions of Congress in Washington, as I did last week, was to travel backward in time and downward in scope. The governors were talking in straightforward terms about concrete achievements in their states and their hopeful plans for the future.

The legislators, debating and passing the Gramm- Rudman budget bill, were confessing their past failures in fiscal policy and warning of worse confusion and dire consequences ahead.

The spectacle of Congress voting to strip itself of the power of the purse, which has been the hallmark of legislative supremacy since the origins of Parliament, was a remarkable but not a reassuring one.

For those with any sense of institutional history, the most poignant moment in the House debate came when Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) said: "This is a flagrant abdication of congressional responsibility."

Rodino gave the House one of its proudest moments, 11 years ago, as he guided the Judiciary Committee to the painful but profoundly necessary impeachment of President Nixon for his violation of the Constitution and his oath of office. Now, Rodino came forward again in what he knew to be a vain effort to slow his colleagues' head- long rush to discard their own constitutional authority. Rodino and such Republican elders as Rep. Silvio Conte (R-Mass.) said they could not understand how Congress could vote "to bring itself to its knees."

Whydid it? Not because the proponents believed in the process they were creating.

"I'm not going to get into specifics," said Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the minority whip, speaking for Gramm- Rudman, "because I'm afraid what we might find out."

"Gramm-Rudman is going to tie the Congress in knots," said Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and one of the principal architects of the final compromise. "It could be a disaster."

There were ample reasons for thinking it so. Gramm- Rudman adds a whole new layer of decision-making to an already complex budget process. It sets tough and arbitrary deficit targets for each of the next five years, exempts large parts of the budget from any cuts, significantly increases the president's leverage over Congress in determining how scarce resources are spent, but ultimately subjects both the president and Congress to mandated cuts imposed by the calculations of unelected civil servants.

The reason -- the only reason -- that Congress voted this possibly unconstitutional procedure was its shame at its inability to force itself and the president to pay the bills for the defense and domestic programs both support. Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.), a supporter, called Gramm- Rudman "an act of legislative desperation."

"It clearly acknowledges our failure to respond to crisis," said Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.), another backer. "We know what has to be done -- to limit defense spending, to limit entitlements, to raise revenues. But we refuse to move. No bill is going to replace the courage, the guts and the leadership it takes to get action." Because they know that to be true, there was more embarrassment than exultation in Congress over the passage of Gramm-Rudman. By contrast, the atmosphere among the governors in Wilmington was genuinely upbeat.

It was not because they were Republicans; if anything, Republicans have reason to be hangdog about their status in the states. They control just 16 of the 50 governorships. But, like their more numerous Democratic counterparts, these governors speak as people who measured up to their responsibilities when times were hard and now are enjoying the benefits of that courage.

Their current hero is Gov. Tom Kean of New Jersey, who was re-elected last month with 70 percent of the vote. Kean's first election -- the closest in state history -- four years ago coincided with the onset of the recession. Like many other governors of both parties, he cut spending and raised taxes in that crisis, kept his budget balanced and now is reaping the rewards of a surging economy.

He is investing heavily in education, human services and infrastructure improvements -- the very areas where the domestic cutbacks of Gramm-Rudman are most likely to fall, and the ones the country can least afford for its future.

Kean said that his objection to Gramm-Rudman is that "it's a straitjacket and an avoidance of responsibility."

He is right, and because he and his fellow governors have met their responsibilities while Washington officials from the president on down have ducked, the gap in their performance and their morale continues to grow.