The 101st Congress, now staggering toward the finish line of the longest election-year session since World War II, will leave behind a national debt that continues to rise, a weakened president, a battered political system, a further demoralized public service and a populace increasingly angry at politicians it elects.

It also will leave behind a dramatically altered political world, a rapidly deteriorating economy and critical war-and-peace decisions that will likely be made in its absence. All in all, that's more than enough to elevate this congressional session into the ranks of those that governed at turning points in the post-World War II era of unquestioned American dominance that is now passing.

Not all of it was as bad as it seemed.

From a political standpoint, this Congress marked the beginning of a real debate about the values of the immediate past and the direction of the future. It was the Congress when reality started to triumph over rhetoric -- a Congress when a reckoning on the Reagan years began.

Painful though it was to watch, this Congress and this president began to face and make decisions on problems that had been long postponed. Deficits do matter, they admitted. Taxes do have to be raised if debt ever is to be reduced. Both Republicans and Democrats acknowledged publicly that spending cuts alone would not be enough to do the job, a position that undercut the old Reagan argument about the proper deficit-reduction formula to follow.

Better balance was being restored to the political equation. That's what the argument about "fairness" was all about. Running through the recent budget debates was the strong theme of the need to right the social and economic wrongs of the past decade. It was a decade in which the poor and the middle classes shared disproportionately in the general prosperity and fell farther behind the ranks of the very rich -- conditions that the politicians concluded had to be addressed. In the end, they began redressing some of the inequities of the 1980s.

This reassessment of old policies and beliefs also applies to foreign affairs. This week, for instance, Patrick Buchanan worried in a column about America going to war in the Middle East at a time when Congress would not be in session to check a possible presidential decision to launch an attack.

"The Constitution, after all, gives Congress, not the president, power to declare war," he wrote Wednesday in the Washington Times, "but Congress is about to adjourn, leaving Mr. Bush two free months to attack, with only some vague admonition that he not do so without congressional approval. This {congressional} abdication is appalling; but no less so than the conduct of conservatives who are supposed to be men of the Constitution."

This is the same Patrick Buchanan who for years as a Reagan aide celebrated presidential power over that of Congress and lashed Congress for interfering with the president's not-so-secret undeclared war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Now, the perspective of the '90s looks quite different.

The narrow, but combustible, political world of Washington also has changed. After being on the defensive for a decade, the Democrats regained a sense of unity and purpose and, finally, prevailed. Republicans, having soared during the Reagan boom and dreaming of greater gains as President Bush's popularity exceeded even that of the Gipper's, suddenly found their hopes dashed. They played out the closing days of this session in embittered internecine strife.

Bush has paid a terrible price for it. Not since Jimmy Carter has a president been pounded so unmercifully, and from his supporters. One day this week, for example, three conservative commentators delivered these unsparing judgments about him. Fred Barnes: "President Bush's political world -- his power in Washington, his reputation across the country -- will never be the same." Paul Craig Roberts: "Overnight President Bush has become a synonym for failure." Phyllis Schlafly: "The hurt among grass-roots Americans was profound when President Bush reneged on the most famous campaign promise of this generation."

Those are voices of the right. From the left, came a comment that best expresses the present politicial situation.

"We got into this mess because for the last 10 years the public has been fed pablum by its political leadership instead of facts," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), "and they have gotten so used to it that it's now difficult to turn society around to face the hard decisions that are required."

Exactly, and that is the hard process this Congress has belatedly set in motion.