Why do we have a Congress?

We have one because the Constitution says we must.

What does Congress do?

Well, the members serve as extras in presidential specials. Try to imagine the State of the Union without all those bodies, applauding or not applauding, providing cutaway shots for the cameras focused on the president. In that sense they are indispensable.

Also, they perform small services for constituents. They send them baby books, copies of speeches, appeals for money. If of the right party, they can arrange private tours of the White House, and all can dispense tickets to the galleries, where the citizens can watch legislators not legislate. Senate Republicans are dug in against a bill to provide limited public funding for congressional campaigns. Although it would rescue them from having to raise $1,600 every working day, it would also help their competition.

Presidents don't have to worry about successfully lobbying for aid for projects that take their fancy. When presidents need money for projects over which Congress nominally has control through its appropriating power, they don't have to grovel for it from prosaic members. They rub Aladdin's lamp.

We already know that the Saudis kicked in $32 million for the contras. They're not much for democracy; they won't have it at home. But casting bread upon the waters is a good idea, and more often than not it comes back to them in the form of the new weapons they perpetually seek. The administration's failure to deliver 1,600 Maverick missiles reflected the times. The hearings have given a bad name to all arms sales in that part of the world.

The New York Times has just published more about Saudi Arabian largess. It shows again that Congress is hanging on to relevancy in the conduct of foreign policy by a thread. It seems that from Afghanistan to Zaire, King Fahd has been doling out millions to promote Western interests, sometimes at our prompting, sometimes not.

William Quandt, who served on Jimmy Carter's National Security Council staff, put the equation in stark terms:

"It takes King Fahd about 10 seconds to sign a check. It takes Congress weeks to debate the smallest issues of this sort. If you can get somebody else to pay for it, it's nice and convenient."

Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said, "It's a good quote. The king has plenty of money and has no Congress to worry about. There is no parallel to what is going on now. Everything we did was in keeping with established procedures. This administration wanted to do something it was not permitted to do. There is nothing new about the fact that governments act jointly for the promotion of mutual interests."

But where does it leave Congress? It holds hearings, summons witnesses, pontificates, marks up, postures through long debates, haggles with the White House, temporizes, compromises and, if it passes the tattered shreds of what it had in mind, pats itself on the back. King Fahd presides over the till.

Congress-baiting may have reached a new level with the Reagan administration. It has been especially hard for a president who won 49 states to think of himself as a mere "partner" in the great scheme of the Founders. To him, the Boland Amendment was a typographical error in the heroic chronicles of the Reagan Doctrine. Oliver L. North never nattered about technicalities.

The colonel and his lawyer have been putting on a show of strength on Capitol Hill that has had the select committees running around in circles. North's attorney, Brendan Sullivan, marched in and announced that his client would not be testifying first in private, as have other witnesses. Negotiations ensued, even though Congress is thought to be in control of the hearings.

Sullivan tried to lay down more law. The committee was to provide North with certain papers, restrict the area and length of the questioning. In short, said one morose member, "He gave a large Rockefeller salute to Congress."

Sullivan knows, of course, that in addition to its usual diffidence before strong-minded individuals, Congress is in a time bind. They can cite him for contempt, but the case would drag on for years, and in the end they would kill the hope of hearing his story, which is the point of the exercise.

"You wouldn't believe it," a member said, "but they are talking about what a smart, stand-up guy Ollie North was to get himself such a smart lawyer. They don't mention the indignity of the whole thing."

That's Congress for you. And that's apparently why several presidents have preferred to deal with the king of Saudi Arabia.