WASHINGTON. — Everyone can agree that congressional check-kiting and related scandals, though small matters in themselves, are symbolic. We just might disagree symbolic about what. The general diagnosis is that members of Congress dwell in an inside-the-beltway cocoon of special privileges, isolated from the concerns of the real world. The fact that they can't keep their own accounts in order is taken as a metaphor for the mess they've made of the government budget.
It's a metaphor, all right. My favorite aspect of the story is the hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills at the House restaurant. It turns out that most of this money is actually owed by constituent groups that get a member's authorization to use House catering facilities and then stiff him or her for the bill. The member, being a politician, is naturally hesitant to press for payment.
So the dining bills are indeed just like the federal budget. The citizenry makes demands for benefits, refuses to pay for them, runs up a huge tab called the national debt, then blames the politicians for being irresponsible spendthrifts.
The check-kiting story is generating a whole new wave of anti-Washington posturing identified as ''populism.'' If this is populism, it is smugger and more complacent than any common form of inside-the-beltway elitism. It has been taken up by columnists and commentators who make many times what a member of Congress does, and are far more steeped in the culture of Washington than a congressman who goes home every weekend. Editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal join the chorus from their aerie at the World Financial Center in downtown New York.
The last outbreak of this virus was a year ago, during the budget-agreement controversy. President Bush himself preposterously piled it on: ''Oh, how nice it is to be out where the real people are, outside of Washington,'' he said while campaigning in Nebraska. A Tampa, Florida, retiree named Jack Gargen bought newspaper ads declaring, ''I'm appalled . . . I'm bitter . . . I'm outraged . . . I'm angry . . . I'm incensed . . . I'm livid . . . I'm even more livid . . . '' at various congressional malefactions. He announced an organization called THRO, for Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out.
Unfortunately, the blight of hypocrisy extends beyond the beltway. Although Mr. Gargen was ''appalled'' by the national debt and ''outraged'' at the thought of higher taxes to reduce it, he offered no alternatives besides the usual red herrings: ''sheer government waste,'' food stamps for people wearing designer jeans, and so on. He opposed ''federal giveaway programs,'' but stood like Horatius at the Bridge against ''any imposition on our retired senior citizens'' -- who are the overwhelming beneficiaries of federal giveaways. In his hypocrisy, Mr. Gargen was exactly what he professed to be: the voice of the American Everyman.
Every now and then Time magazine runs a special feature bewailing the supposed dearth of leadership. Maybe it's time for one bewailing the lack of followership. Americans don't want leadership. They want alchemy. True, they have been told by politicians that alchemy is possible. But in their hearts, they must know it's not. Or at least, anyone carrying on about a lack of leadership in Washington must already know this. And it's absurd to accuse leaders of failing to persuade you of something you already know.
It's even more absurd to vote time and again for leaders you believe have failed, and then to demand their mass removal. Goodness knows most of our elected leaders would win no prize at a medium-sized state fair. But who elected them? The current fad for term limits on Congress and other elected offices is the silliest expression of America's failure of democratic followership. has been noted, its message is: Stop me before I vote again.
Of course most American citizens don't vote. Some commentators excuse this, too, as demonstrating a healthy contempt for politicians or, more grandly, a healthy democratic contentment. In a properly functioning society, the argument goes, politics is rightly of marginal concern to good citizens. They are far wiser to attend to their families, or bake cookies, chase butterflies, write poetry.
For a seemingly populist argument, this is amazingly patronizing. After all, those making it spend much of their own waking hours thinking about politics and public policy. They do not do so because they think that such matters are of marginal importance. They are not showing humility by taking over this grim duty of caring about politics, as a saint might by washing the feet of the poor. They think about politics because they do believe it's important, and they believe their own views are especially important. Only other people's views don't matter, apparently.
Criticizing the citizenry for the sins of the politicians sounds undemocratic. It is reminiscent of Brecht's famous caustic crack that when people lose confidence in the government, ''the government should dissolve the people and elect a new one.'' But respect for democracy does not require the assumption that the people are inherently wise and any error of the political system is a failure of the officials they choose to elect.
Remember Jimmy Carter's slogan, ''A government as good as its people''? That's what we've got.