In October 1973, then vice president Spiro ("Pass the envelope please") Agnew boldly confronted what would now be called a mid-life career crisis.

Roughly put, the two professional options available to the vice president of the United States were: either to pursue a number of very attractive challenges in the private sector or to do shirts and socks in the Lompoc prison laundry.

That might help to explain how the American people, some eight years ago, watched while a vice president turned into a novalist-business consultant and why, this week, Rep. John Rhodes of Arizona owes House Speaker Tip O'neill a public apology.

When Agnew became a novelist, Jerry Ford became vice president and John Rhodes succeeded Ford as House Republican leader. With only about a third of the House to lead, Rhodes found time to write a pretty good book about Congress in which he described O'Neill as "the most partisan man I know." Undoubtedly, President Reagan would use other words, in this first week of February 1981, to characterize the Democratic speaker and his House colleagues. To Reagan, the House Democrats must have looked a lot more like patriots than partisans.

Irony wrote the legislative script. The first test of the Reagan administration on the Hill was the White House's push to get the public debt ceiling raised from $935 billion to $985 billion.

Reagan had little reason to expect a lot of help from his own party members in Congress. For a generation now, House Republicans have been consistently preaching fiscal responsibility and persistently voting against raising the debt limit. It may not have been good government, but just consider the great material it provided for the next batch of direct-mail fund-raising letters.

Think of the paragraphs that could be composed on governmental economy by comparing the respective House records of the two parties on past votes. Between them, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson 12 times requested a rise in the public debt ceiling; twelve times House Republicans overwhelmingly opposed those requests. All 12 times, large majorities of House Democrats voted with their president. Hurray for the GOP and boo for the Democrats. Who cares whether Grandma's Social Security check bounced for instufficient funds?

Just to prove they were not narrow partisans -- and the fact that the chief executive had been their leader and colleague counted for very little -- House Republicans voted against every one of President Ford's seven requests to increase the debt limit. By contrast, the House Democrats were pushovers, supporting Ford six out of seven times and Richard Nixon's eight of the nine times he sought an increase.

During the Carter years the House GOP played political hardball. The last time the House had raised the debt ceiling was on June 4, 1980, when not a single Republican was recorded among the 203 yea votes.

The strategy that times was clear: let the Democrats, five months before a presidential election, be tagged with the blame for more debt, more inflation and the further improverishment of future generations.

That basic message, along with supporting evidence linking the Democrats to the last outbreak of pinkeye, was mailed twice to all registered and unregistered voters -- and the message got through. Ronald Reagan has become the first Republican president since Ike to work with a Republican majority in either house.

But of the 152 House Republicans elected in the last 10 years, only 23 of them voted even once to raide the debt ceiling. Madelyn Murray O'Hair would be more comfortable singing at midnight mass than most House Republican would be voting for a higher debt limit.

On Feb. 5, 1981, perhaps a hundred House Democrats, with help from the Democratic Study Group, waited until the last two minutes to vote on the debt question. They watch while a hundred House Republicans, many of whom had taunted and tried to beat the Democrats on this very issue, did something for the very first time: voted to raise the debt ceiling.

Eighty-one percent of the House Republicans, the highest percentage in 28 years, voted to support the new president and to raise the debt ceiling. From the death of an old campaign tactic may have been born a new sense of party responsibility. If so, if the House Republicans really have had a successful vertebrae transplant, then credit must be paid to the White House congressional liaison staff and to the president, who was willing to risk defeat. But some credit for the House Republicans' discovering fiscal responsibility on debt-limit votes should go to Tip O'Neill and the Democrats, who have showed them how all these years.