A gimlet-eyed history from Hager and Pianin (reporters for Congressional Quarterly and the Washington Post, respectively) of the capital's budget follies, culminating in last year's impasse between President Clinton and the GOP-controlled Congress. The nation's fiscal difficulties are nothing new: The last time the budget was balanced was by LBJ in 1969. Although his successors could not fulfill fervent promises to tame the deficit beast, the worst offender, the authors claim, was Ronald Reagan, who, in pushing for tax cuts and defense-spending hikes, ended up tripling the nation's debt. What ensued, they show, was a partisan ""tit-for-tat, revenge-seeking game."" The problem is that budgets, the government's declaration of major priorities, are as serious as they are arcane, and are especially crucial to special-interest groups. Washington's pols understand three things about this situation: that deficits corrode the nation's economic vitality by causing less private investment and lower long-term standards of living; that entitlement programs must be curbed lest the deficit worsen; and that any serious attempt to do so is ripe for partisan exploitation. Democrats learned this to their dismay when candidate Walter Mondale was hammered for advocating tax increases, while Republicans lost the Senate in 1985 after having tried to freeze Social Security cost-of-living adjustments. In 1990, Democratic intransigence forced George Bush to break his ""read my lips"" pledge against new taxes; in 1995, the Gingrich-led Congress got outfoxed by Clinton and were blamed for causing a ""train wreck"" (D.C. lingo for government shutdown). Hager and Pianin enrich their narrative with portraits of such budget-war veterans as Bob Dole, Richard Darman, Leon Panetta, and John Kasich--all initially hopeful of progress, all knowing better now. In depicting responsible governing checkmated by partisan sniping, the authors present a true-life spectacle as funny as a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and as painful as root canal.