Watching the slow, tortuous pace of action in Washington, it's sometimes easy to forget that fundamental checks and balances were written into the American system of government on purpose. The idea was to make action anything but easy to take, and thus to head off power grabs, avoid precipitate moves and ensure detailed consideration of proposals.

Even remembering the founding fathers' intent, however, it's difficult to watch what's going on in Washington today without a shudder. Congress seems far more concerned with the form of politics than the substance of government. The White House is not much better. And it's getting steadily worse.After weeks of stopgap budget measures, Congress completed the budget Friday when the Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve a $390 billion spending package. That was the last piece in the nation's $1.8 trillion budget, some two-thirds of which is mandatory spending for debt service and programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

But estimates are that the final tab will exceed by some $30 billion the spending limits Congress itself set in 1997. And that well could require dipping into the surplus generated by Social Security funds - something Republicans have ringingly promised wouldn't happen.

Unable to pass a budget on time, unable to stay within their own spending-limit law, and close to breaking one of their majority party's pledges, what do representatives and senators do? Do they own up to the difficulty of it all? Do they explain what's going on? Do they set in motion any mechanisms to improve the sorry process?

No. They resort to creative financial gimmicks and bombastic political rhetoric. They adopt the old defense-lawyer strategy: I didn't do it; and if I did, it's not my fault, it's the other guy's.

In fact, this year it may well be that Congress' biggest success was lowering the esteem in which the public holds it. That's undoubtedly not what the senators and representatives set out to do. But do it they did.

That follows the sorry performance last year, when the budget process climaxed in a tumult and an omnibus bill so thick that no one had read it.

And the process is going to get even worse next year. The looming elections will mean little action, lots of finger-pointing and a surfeit of chest-pounding - a combination guaranteed to raise voter frustration exponentially.

Washington's deepening rut doesn't just include Congress, of course. The White House is stuck there, too. Indeed, the antipathy of many Republicans toward President Clinton - a hostility that seems to go beyond the political, as evidenced during Clinton's impeachment and trial - is part and parcel of the problem. And yet the president maintains his popularity with much of the nation at large.

No one should seriously question the checks and balances. But government should be more than gridlock. The nation's voters have to insist on it.