Sometimes visitors to Washington see the city better than we see it. If this is the case with the nation's governors, who ended their annual winter meeting here yesterday, then we could be in worse trouble than we think.

The governors acted as if they could hardly wait to get out of town.

It was almost refreshing. Politicians normally come here to impress, to lecture, to beg and to deal.

But many of the nation's most thoughtful governors have concluded that the machinery of the federal government has broken down. They see Washington as a city paralyzed. And they made no attempt to conceal their disdain during their visit.

"The federal government has failed at this point in our history, and we don't understand it," said New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican reelected by a record margin last fall. "The action isn't in Washington any more. It's in the states."

This attitude represents a dramatic shift. For decades, governors looked to the federal Treasury and Congress to bail them out of their problems. Now governors see themselves as the doers and innovators of government, men and women who face tough political choices everyday. They see Washington politicians as pass-the-buck artists.

"The institution of Congress has broken down," Kean said. "It's become an overblown bureaucracy," he said. "Perhaps the reforms of the last 15 years did it. We had a much stronger leadership and more civility when my father was in Congress. There's also a little more self-righteousness and partisanship."

The governors found at least one sympathetic ally in the Washington power structure -- Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. "There is a slow, but steady dawning that we can no longer govern," he told the National Governors' Association yesterday.

"The public doesn't just elect us to debate. They elect us to debate and do something. . . . They want to know the institution works," he said. "They're not interested in what we can't do but what can be done and that we're doing it."

The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing law was repeatedly cited as a symbol of the breakdown of the federal power structure. But complaints went far deeper.

For example, Kean noted that Congress' failure to pass a new Superfund toxic-waste cleanup law has made it necessary for New Jersey to lend the federal government $30 million this year to continue cleanup efforts in his state.

With state and local governments threatened with a 19 percent cut in federal aid as result of the budget law, the governors might have been expected to spend most of their meeting crying over the pain. And Democratic and Republican governors did quarrel over the blame for the federal budget deficits.

But most bickering was limited to the final day of the three-day meeting. For the most part, governors appeared willing to follow the lead of their chairman, Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander (R), a moderate who set a gentlemanly tone.

"We don't see ourselves as substitute senators or lecturers to the federal government," he said at an opening news conference. Governors are interested in things like better schools, roads, prisons and jobs, he said, and "Washington has almost nothing to do with these things."

Nowhere is the change in governors' attitudes more evident than in the case of Michigan Gov. James J. Blanchard (D), 43, who left Congress to run for governor in 1982.

"I regard Gramm-Rudman as a political maneuver to avoid the tough decisions," he said. "I hate to dignify it by even talking about negotiating a political process that is based on mirrors, feathers and hot air.

"We governors are for real. We're running our states. We face the heat every day," Blanchard added. "I hate to see us pulled down into the gutter of Washington's latest buzzword."