American democracy is in trouble.

That's the clearest conclusion to emerge from the gridlock that gripped the government over the past several weeks.You have to believe the old saw that democracy bears within it the seeds of its own destruction. For more than a month it's looked as if the seeds had sprouted and were growing with the vitality of tumbleweeds after a heavy rain.

It was awesome. The world's greatest power helpless to act in a time of national peril.

We've been headed for this for a long time. Congress has been moving with the speed of an ant trapped in a sea of molasses. Movement has slowed steadily since the House "reformed" itself in the 1970s, emasculating the seniority system and ending party discipline.

It was supposed to make the system work better. But the effect was the opposite. Now we've got near anarchy. Every man for himself. Of course, the result was paralysis.

It has shown up most dramatically in Congress' inability to deal with budget and deficit year after year.

Now, in the last quarter of the 1990 ball game, the situation was never worse. Recession threatens. We're toe-dancing on the brink of war in the Middle East. We have 210,000 troops in the desert, primed. Oil (and gasoline) prices reach for the moon, raising the specter of inflation.

In such a time Americans had a right to expect their elected representatives to lay aside politics long enough to solve the budget problem.

A reasonable expectation, surely.

We have faced such crises in the past, when Congress and the executive pulled together, using reason and compromise to save the republic.

Not this time.

President Bush, after a good beginning of toughness, seemed to weary of the hassle, then flopped back and forth on issues and finally threw up his hands and headed for the hustings to campaign.

He winds up the loser, his voter support plummeting with rocket speed.

Congress resembled a zoo at feeding time.

It was disgraceful. Seeing our representatives hurling epithets and insults on TV.

For weeks, few voices of reason were heard. Demagoguery was the rule.

One of its prime exponents, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, had a field day bashing the GOP for protecting the rich from higher taxes. A pol of long experience in Chicago, he's a true expert in class warfare.

"Rosty" certainly knows about the rich, all right. He has a nice, fat $1.1 million in his campaign treasury. He's one of 175 in Congress still eligible to convert surplus campaign money to personal use. A number have retained the funds when they retired.

Also, this soak-the-rich champ made a tidy $285,000 in speaking honorariums last year, certainly enough to keep him off the bread line.

Democrats are treating "Rosty" as the hero of their political "victory" over the GOP in the budget battle. How satisfying a win it was remains to be seen. While the Demos gave their opponents and the president some black eyes, in the process they have done nothing at all to improve the reputation of Congress with the voters.

That was low before. It's worse now. It will drop even further when the cost of this so-called deficit reduction plan begins to hit the pockets of taxpayers.

Whether the plan will do its job is questionable, not to mention what it may do to an already weak economy.

President Hoover and Congress raised taxes in 1932 in the opening throes of the Depression. The tax hike made it worse.

One must wonder what our politicians will do if the current tax bill has similar results - no doubt blame each other and play more politics until it's too late to correct things.

We can only hope that the voters get fed up and mad enough to throw the rascals out and start over fresh.