The 96th Congress may be best remembered as the time when, after half a century, the Democrats ran out of gas.

For most of that time since the start of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, Democrats had been joyfully handing out federal money to help people survive the Great Depression and later to improve the quality of life by building schools and roads, helping pay medical and grocery bills and cleaning up the environment.

Only four years ago President Carter took office promising national health insurance and welfare reform. But nothing came of it. It cost too much and the money was all gone. When the 96th Congress came to town two years ago, all its members could talk about was cutting spending and balancing the budget.

Congress and Carter made a real effort to balance the budget and for a little while it looked as though it might work. But inflation and recession shattered that dream this year and in November the voters virtually swept the Democrats out of Washington. They lost the White House, the Senate and a working majority in the House, though on paper they still control it.

The notion that federal money can solve all problems has had a shrinking constituency in Congress in recent years, notably among younger members who have come since Watergate. But next year promises a giant step against it. Once past House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), one must start scratching to find liberals willing to commit the government to a big health care or jobs program. The next president and Congress may provide the most conservative government since Herbert Hoover left office.

Besides huffing and puffing over a balanced budget, Congress spent most of its time on building up national defense, energy questions and deregulation. o

But it may be that historians half a century from now will remember this Congress more for two things it was able to complete in what was intended to be a throwaway lame-duck session after the election. First, it ended a decade of controversy by setting aside an area larger than California in Alaska to be preserved in varying states of undeveloped wilderness. Then it made a start at cleaning up thousands of chemical dumps across the country, such as that which caused the nightmare at New York state's Love Canal, by a fund largely assessed on industry.

It appeared briefly that the Senate might also pass the most important civil rights bill in 15 years to strengthen enforcement of the 1968 law forbidding racial discrimination in housing. But civil rights groups decided that changes required to get the needed votes would have dulled its teeth too much to be worth doing.

Deregulation of industries -- which sounds like Republican doctrine -- has become popular with this Democratic Congress. It doesn't cost any federal money. During the last two years, Congress approved major deregulation of railroads, truckers and banks. That followed deregulation of airlines, which is causing some second thoughts among members as service to marginal areas is cut and for every supersaver seat there seems to be a price increase.

Congress refused to put federal brakes on the rising cost of hospital care or to lower the ceiling on the amount of money political action committees can give candidates for Congress. It also failed again to reach agreement on legislation requiring disclosure of lobbying activities. The right of people to know who finances lobbying ran into First Amendment freedom of expression.

But Congress refused to back away from its insistence that industry provide safe and healthy working conditions under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for its employes. Programs to clean up the nation's air and waterways come up for renewal next year.

The need to conserve and produce more energy to reduce reliance on foreign oil has consumed more time of Carter and Congress than any other subject the last four years. This Congress took two big bites at the issue. After Carter had lifted price controls on domestic crude oil, Congress passed a tax bill that is expected to siphon off $228 billion in higher profits from the oil industry over the next decade and use it to reduce income taxes, help the poor buy fuel and save energy through such programs as improving mass transit.

Congress also created a corporation to promote development of alternative sources of energy. But it rejected Carter's proposal to put synfuel projects on a "fast track" by cutting red tape for fear it would wreck environmental programs. Congress also approved after much haggling a standby plan for gasoline rationing to be put into effect should oil supplies drop disastrously low.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the taking of U.S. hostages in Iran and general unrest in the Mideast produced a turnaround in Congress' attitude on military budgets. For the first time since Vietnam, Congress voted more than the president requested. It also approved revival of draft registration, funds for development of the enormously expensive mobile MX missile, and authorized but stopped short of voting money to prepare for resumption of manufacture of nerve gas.

Soviet aggression caused Congress abruptly to shelve the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) negotiated with the Soviets. But Congress voted to normalize relations with mainland China, implemented the Panama Canal treaties which opponents had denounced as the giveaway of a strategic necessity, and voted economic assistance to the new regime in Nicaragua, which opponents called communist.

This Congress moved forward but did not finally pass a major revision of the federal criminal code. It was unable to balance the budget, but for the first time it exercised a self-discipline called reconciliation that may reduce this year's deficit by $8.2 billion. It voted to bail out the troubled Chrysler Corp. with $1.5 billion in loan guarantees. Despite the antigovernment atmosphere, it created a new Department of Education. And it decided it isn't yet ready for "sunset" legislation that would kill off programs not specifically renewed periodically.

Never in recent years had such a pall of corruption hung over Congress as in the 96th. Abscam, denounced by some as FBI entrapment, produced bribery indictments of seven members of Congress and so far the conviction of four. Several other members were found guilty by their peers of conduct deserving censure or something like it. One member was expelled from the House and three others resigned when threatened with expulsion. This had not happened since the Civil War and marked higher standards of conduct required by those now coming to Congress.

A record number of big names leaving who won't be back next month when the 97th Congress convenes -- John Culver, Frank Church, George McGovern, Birch Bayh in the Senate; John Brademas, Thomas Ashley, Al Ullman and John Corman in the House. Some lesser known members who have made their mark also lost, such as Rep. Richardson Preyer (D-N.C.) who became known as Mr. Integrity and was defeated in part because he believed a member should not be expelled until his appeal of a criminal conviction had been exhausted.

The names of those who will be in charge start with Strom Thurmond, James McClure, Jake Garn and Orrin Hatch in the Senate. And in the House, Speaker O'Neill will be running the last Democratic show in town and trying to revive the party for a comeback in 1982.