THE present discourse between mainstream Republicans and Democrats in Washington sounds like 536 tomcats brawling in a boiler factory. If you delight in other people's chaos you're probably enjoying the clash of incompatible ideas about the federal budget, welfare, and the like.
If, on the other hand, you are dismayed by political cacophony, be of good heart. Like Mark Twain's comment on Wagner's music - ''It's better than it sounds'' - Washington's current uproar is more profound in meaning than it seems.
What is being debated by the true believers of both parties is the future political definition of America - that is, the relationship of the federal government to the public it governs.
The most dramatic modern change in that relationship occurred in 1933, when Franklin D. Roosevelt became president. The great stock market crash of 1929 was still producing economic and social aftershocks that wrecked businesses and threw a quarter of the work force into the bleak provinces of unemployment. FDR launched a series of radical federal programs whose dominant underlying emotion - if federal policies can be said to have emotions - was activist compassion. Although the New Deal didn't end the Depression, its programs put millions back to work and created a new American social climate.
That climate emanated from a vigorous federal government that involved itself in uncountable aspects of public life from social welfare and water quality to Medicare. Conservatives denounced it all as patriarchal socialism that rotted the will of the poor and put free enterprise in a regulatory straitjacket. Still, for more than 60 years, majorities of Americans have grown up assuming that federal activism is the political norm.
Now the Republican leadership of the 104th Congress is trying to replace that activism with fiscal prudence as the most prominent feature of the central government. If the Republicans achieved everything they seek, federal social programs would be scuttled, modified, or dispersed to the states and, once again, deregulation would become this city's favorite indoor sport.
In its new relationship with its constituents Washington would offer a balanced budget, tax cuts, and a smaller federal government. As in the 19th century, the public would look to state governments for surcease from travail and subsidized improvement.
The declining public popularity of the GOP's program may make compromise inevitable. But it is important to understand the underlying import of the budget, welfare, and Medicare debate here - and the reason why that debate is so rackety.