THE GROWTH issue can help politicians win elections, as the results of Tuesday's Virginia elections so powerfully attest. But in substantive terms, the issue too often tends to be lose-lose. To limit growth is to sacrifice some of the revenue needed to cope with its past consequences--daily traffic tie-ups, overcrowded schools, etc. To encourage it in part for the sake of a stronger tax base is to compound those consequences. Neither alternative is attractive. The politicians, like everyone else, tend to be better at deploring than solving the twin problems of not enough money to deal with too much congestion.

The Virginia returns were dramatic testimony to the power of the issue. In Loudoun County, the nation's third fastest-growing, a slow-growth slate won all eight contested seats on the board of supervisors. The same issue was used to oust the chairman of the Prince William County supervisors and a well-financed member of the Fairfax County board.

The question resonates equally in Maryland, where the Montgomery County Council tried and failed a week ago to rebalance its own development policy. The council had a slow-growth majority in the early 1990s. Its members took office about the time the recession of 1990-91 took hold, leaving it temporarily with relatively little growth to retard.

The county also has in place an elaborate process for approving new development, which may have been state-of-the-art in its day but has itself become outmoded. County Executive Douglas Duncan says the combination caused the recession to linger longer in the county than elsewhere in the region.

A couple of years ago the council recognized the problem. It ordered a study, and in the meantime set up a temporary "pay-and-go" system whereby developers could short-circuit parts of the approval process by payment of a fee that in theory would help defray public costs associated with their projects.

Last week the council had before it some of the proceeds of the study it commissioned--a proposal for a countywide development tax together with some easing of the approval system. A modest amount of residential construction would have been permitted in parts of the county where there are now moratoriums. There would be some recognition of the fact that not all projects approved in prior years will actually be built. The planning process now assumes that all such projects, even abandoned ones, eventually will generate traffic, thereby leaving, on paper, less room for newer and viable projects.

The council refused to ease the existing rules, set aside the development tax and killed the pay-and-go system that was supposed to serve as a safety valve. The county is back where it was several years ago. Members of the 5-to-4 majority say they're willing to entertain a compromise, just not the one that was presented last week. They ought to work a real one out. Some of them note that in this eighth straight year of economic expansion, stimulating growth is not the county's problem, battling congestion is. But the business cycle is more a crutch than a solution. They need a balanced policy no less than the Northern Virginia counties in which the problem may currently be more acute.