Congress is so much better than we think -- and, at the same time, so much worse -- that it stands as the grand paradox of American political institutions in this era. Both the positive and the negative sides came into focus last week in an interview with House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), and it will take a couple columns to sort through what he had to say.

We began by talking about the record of the much-reviled 101st Congress, which Foley said was far better than the press or the public recognized. He is not alone in that judgment. In separate letters, two veteran legislators for whom I have great respect, Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), No. 5 ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, said this past Congress probably had accomplished more than any previous Congress in which they had served.

That may sound like bragging or like defensiveness. But this is what Congressional Quarterly, the independent publication that is the authority on the legislative branch, said in its end-of-session review last month: "It is hard to say what is more remarkable about the 101st Congress: that lawmakers accomplished so much or that they looked so bad doing it."

The accomplishments include the famous multi-year budget deal, which was so long in coming. It still leaves unacceptably large deficits. But it made the first round of tough decisions and put in place an enforcement mechanism that will compel Congress to make the further hard choices required to get the government on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Beyond that, the last Congress wrote the most important piece of environmental legislation since the '70s -- the updating of the Clean Air Act. It also enacted the first national child-care policy and program ever passed, a significant expansion of both Head Start and Medicaid coverage for needy youths, the first housing legislation in 16 years, a major program to improve airport facilities and reduce noise, a sensible and less costly farm program and a major overhaul of immigration laws.

When I asked Foley why he thought Congress had done so much and yet received little but abuse and derision, he turned the question back on me -- and on the press.

When it comes to Congress, he said, "the press can handle only one story at a time." As far as the press was concerned, "Congress was either entirely involved with the pay raise or the Jim Wright case or the budget. And even the one thing the press says Congress is doing gets boiled down to a two-word phrase: It was always the 'budget mess,' the 'budget fiasco,' the 'budget agony,' the 'budget imbroglio,' the 'budget disaster.' The public got the impression the mechanics they had hired to fix the car couldn't even figure out how to get the hood open.

"In the end," he said, "the budget process was a substantial success. But it failed to produce the quick theatrical denouement somebody must have expected. And when the deal was finally struck, the press was committed to its version of the story, so you had stories that began: 'Heading home to face the righteous anger of their constituents, the members of the sorry 101st Congress snuck out of Washington ... ' "

All this was said with good-humored exaggeration. And yet there is enough truth in Foley's comments to prick the conscience of any Washington journalist. In fact, we rarely do justice to the wide variety of legislative issues Congress is tackling in its scores of committees on any given day. And even when a major bill reaches the floor, it is not often that the public learns much about those who have crafted the measure.

For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act passed by the 101st Congress was arguably the most significant civil rights and social-policy legislation to become law in more than a decade. But when President Bush invited the lawmakers who had contributed to its passage to join him in the Rose Garden for the bill-signing ceremony, it is doubtful that more than a handful of reporters in Washington -- let alone the voters -- knew the names of the people in the picture with the president.

Congress suffers in its coverage because the legislative process is so protracted. Often, when consensus is finally achieved, the story lacks the element of personal conflict reporters love.

But those are excuses -- not justifications. The press has to do a better job of spotlighting what Congress does. Legislators who do as much for the country as those who shaped the major laws of the 101st Congress deserve recognition.

And there's a second reason to keep the spotlight more focused on Congress. Only the glare of press and public scrutiny will force its leaders and members to stop the debasement of democracy by campaign cash that they now tolerate and from which they benefit. The rest of the interview with Foley -- about which I'll write next time -- made me realize even more than before that it will take shock therapy to force Congress to change that campaign-finance system.