IN THE people's House on Thursday night and Friday morning, you saw democracy reduced to the low crawl. The flight from fiscal and political responsibility of the past 10 years has produced some memorably craven moments, but none to match this. The president had finally climbed off the cloud of anti-math that helped him win the 1988 election -- a disappearing deficit with no tax increases and no painful spending cuts either.

He and the congressional leaders of both parties had negotiated the first solid deficit reduction in years -- years in which the national debt tripled to $3 trillion. House members fall all over one another -- they did again in this debate -- deploring the deficit as an insupportable drain on the economy and on the ability of government to fulfill its responsibilities. Yet their response to the plan, lacking a better one, was to chop it up and vote it down.

Republicans bemoaned the tax increases -- but failed as ever to propose specific spending cuts to take their place. They said the approach of a recession was the wrong time to raise taxes, but they said the middle of the boom was the wrong time too. Some even had the effrontery to complain that the excise tax increases proposed would fall heaviest on the middle class, when it was the insistence of their own party that upper-income taxpayers be protected that had forced the middle class to bear the brunt.

The Democrats likewise bewailed the impact on the middle class, and they have somewhat better license to do so, although they have made their own contribution to the 10-year default. What they lack, having lost the last three presidential elections, is the power to make their policy preferences come true. They want to use the budget resolution to repeal the last election returns. That isn't going to happen, any more than the Republicans can find a way to repeal the basic arithmetic that if taxes don't equal spending a deficit occurs.

Some members who voted no made the procedural complaint that they had been left out of the deliberations. They had indeed, and the vote Friday morning in which they scattered in so many contradictory directions suggests clearly why. We have divided government, the parties have genuinely opposing philosophies and the deal that they have to strike sooner or later isn't going to get any better, except perhaps on the symbolic margins. To gain votes from one party is to lose in the other.

There have to be tax increases, and if Republicans have the power as it seems they do to keep income taxes from rising at the top, the increases are going to be disproportionately borne by the middle class. There have to be cuts in programs for the elderly, because they represent more than a third of the budget. If Social Security is untouchable, as the advocacy groups and both parties seem to have made it, there's no practical place to go but Medicare. The last time they tried to make higher-income recipients pay the larger share of Medicare costs was when they enacted catastrophic health insurance. They repealed that, under pressure and in panic, a year after it was passed. The alternative is to spread the cost across a broader range of recipients, who they said the other night shouldn't have to pay either. The poor and near-poor were protected in the agreement from the increased out-of-pocket expenses proposed.

Nor can (or should) the defense budget be the piggy bank that saves them. The votes aren't there. The agreement made moderate cuts in the defense budget; the administration, most Republicans and enough Democrats to make the difference will resist more.

We don't love the agreement they voted down, and maybe someone can come up with a better one that can pass. But no one has all year. For the sake of reducing a deficit that they claim to agree is hurting the country, they were asked to suspend for a moment the fears and preferences that have produced the deficit, and they couldn't do it, nor could their leaders make them. It was the worst kind of politics-as-usual.