THERE IS AN old Washington story about President Lyndon Johnson furious with Sen. Frank Church of Idaho for opposing him on Vietnam. "Who've you been talking to on this?" Johnson asks Church. Church says Walter Lippmann, the magisterial newspaper columnist. "Next time you want a dam in Idaho," Johnson tells Church, "ask Walter Lippmann for it."
Probably never happened. Smart as he was about Congress, L.B.J. wasn't likely to treat one of its princes cruelly for the small satisfaction of uttering a crushing witticism. Congress was different then from now.
Then, insolent citizens whose disrespect irritated some congressional committee often risked jail on charges of contempt of Congress. How different then from now. Now it is Congress itself that treats Congress with contempt.
For example, it is transferring its historic power of the purse to the White House where Lyndon Johnsons of the future can use it to extract obedience from any Frank Churches cheeky enough to vex their presidents.
This will be the result of the so-called line-item-veto bill, which was quickly whooped through the House by Speaker Gingrich's zealots and, more surprisingly, passed in the Senate with the connivance of both parties.
"Historic" is not an abused word for describing this remarkable abdication of Congressional power. It was rooted in the British Parliament's money quarrel with kings over 350 years ago. This resulted in the Puritan Revolution and Civil War of 1642-1648. Parliament prevailed, King Charles was executed and the power of the purse was lodged ever afterward in Parliament.
A century and a half later the makers of the American Constitution adapted it by giving Congress the power to authorize taxes and spending. In short, Messrs. Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole have just chucked a lot of history overboard.
The explanation lies in the above-mentioned self-loathing that now afflicts Congress. Congressional members have lately taken whining about their weakness. They are simply too weak-kneed, they say, to resist doling out Federal gravy.
Powerless, they say, to stop their admittedly craven and swinish behavior, they now desperately seek drastic means that will force them to shape up.
A constitutional amendment was proposed. Messrs. Gingrich and Dole peddled it like hot Gospel. Surely, surely these wretched sinful wastrels who wanted -- sincerely wanted -- to mend their ways, surely they could control their evil habit if only it were proscribed by that sacred document, the Constitution.
In February the amendment failed by a hairbreadth, thanks to an astonishing flare-up of old-fashioned Republican good sense and integrity from Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon.
The president, a Democrat, wanted it. What president would not want such a whip to keep the herd in line. A Democratic president's wanting it assured the Republicans enough
Democratic votes to pass it, even though its effect is to increase President Clinton's power.
It is said that Republicans were glad to give Bill Clinton a brief glimpse of the new power because they expect that presidents after 1996 will forevermore be Republicans. This is too cynical.
The evidence suggests that the new breed of Republicans has little use for Congress but a rising passion for presidential power. The rise of Newt Gingrich began, after all, with his long and successful effort to discredit Congress itself as ineffectual and corrupt.
The speaker has made contempt for Congress so respectable that Congress now glories in despising itself for being too flabby to deal with a budget deficit.
It would be naive to ask these people why they don't simply quit kowtowing to their many publics and behave honorably by saying "No" to wasteful spending. The answer -- "We would be defeated at the next election, stupid" -- is too obvious.
You might then ask, "But why do you want to be re-elected to an institution you hold in contempt?"
Don't be dense. Unless people with contempt for the place stay in power, who will keep it down?
Russell Baker is a New York Times columnist.