SAY WHAT you will about the state of government in Government City. At least it has what the poet William Blake called "a fearful symmetry."
And we do mean fear.
On the one hand, we have the head of the executive branch, the chief magistrate, the commander-in-chief, George Bush, running for his life away from the budget resolution, a part of his duties he detests. He is, of course, terrified of taxes. He has begged Congress to take the hit for him, but the Democrats have not obliged. So he cries, "Read my hips" over his shoulder as he follows the road signs to disintegration.
The Democratic Congress, on the other hand, still has its old Cold War fear of being thought insufficiently belligerent and earlier this month revisited the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Although it spends much time whining that nobody ever tells it anything and that its co-equal power is not appreciated, Congress abdicated its responsibility in the Persian Gulf crisis by passing bipartisan, non-binding resolutions that expresses approval for the president's present action in the conflict. Democratic leader George Mitchell had his name on the measure, and the Senate approved it, 96 to 3.
Morton Halperin, a prominent critic of Vietnam policy, spoke at one of several seminars that have occurred since Congress, possibly for election-time purposes, showed that it wished to be involved without being responsible.
Congress felt under pressure, Halperin said, to "do something" to show that it was in the cheering section along with the rest of the people.
Daniel Ellsberg, of Pentagon Papers immortality, was another peacenik who showed up in town. He pointed out that there was a 50 percent improvement in Senate courage since 1964, the year of the Gulf of Tonkin. In 1964, only Sens. Ernest Gruening and Wayne Morse voted against what proved to be Lyndon Johnson's blank check for full-throated war in Vietnam. On Oct. 2, three senators -- Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) and Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) -- voted no.
Hatfield's memories of Tonkin are vivid and personal. He was governor of Oregon, he told his colleagues, when the president invited all governors to the White House for a war briefing. The first thing Johnson did, Hatfield said, was to unfurl the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
"It was not the Johnson war policy, it was not the president's war. Here Congress, except for two votes, had passed a resolution."
The governors voted 49 to 1 (Hatfield was the heretic) for a resolution saying go to it.
In the House this month, the vote was considerably improved over 1964, when not a single member voted no on the Gulf of Tonkin. Twenty-nine members stood up and resisted the patriotic fervor sweeping the chamber (380 approved it). One dissenter was Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D-Wis.), who has been in the House since 1958 and has never forgiven himself for voting for the Tonkin resolution.
Opponents of the Bush policy do not quarrel with the need to stand up to Saddam Hussein or to drive him out of Kuwait. But they want to give the embargo a chance; they want multilateral action under the United Nations. And no ground war and no "surgical" air strikes. They want Congress to be consulted -- not a Johnson-style consultation, which meant bourbon-and-branchwater schmoozing with selected hawks -- but a regular, serious process.
The president has spoken of "a new world order" in the Middle East. Some were awed at the prospect, but nobody knew what it meant. It sounded grandiose, especially from a man who cannot raise a quorum in his own party for taxing the rich. But Congress presumably signed onto that along with everything else. And yet, they say the resolution of support is not another Tonkin Gulf, not an authorization for war. Why isn't it? Because George Mitchell told them it wasn't.
What haunts skeptics like Hatfield is not just Tonkin memories, but a recent statement by Defense Secretary Richard Cheney, who noted that in the waging of recent military actions, most conspicuously Panama, "it was an advantage that Congress was out of town." The fear is that the president, who has suffered a severe sinking spell in the polls due to his gyrations on the budget, might attempt to recoup by sounding the war bugles in the desert.
When Kennedy sought assurances from Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger that Congress's prerogative to declare war would be honored, the most he got was Eagleburger's tepid, "I can only assume, sir, that the president would do his best to consult with the Congress whether they were in or out of session."
You'd think that with the president abdicating domestic work and Congress scared stiff of foreign entanglements, they were made for each other. But as we have seen, the system just doesn't work unless both sides do both jobs.
Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.