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Boll weevils, gypsy moths, and the 97th Congress

Will Rogers might have said a Congress that gave America the ''boll weevil'' and the ''gypsy moth'' can't be all bad. Consider the ''mugwumps'' of almost a century ago. They remain famous even though few remember the candidate (Grover Cleveland) and his cause (civil service reform) that prompted the mugwumps to desert their party (Republican). As the 97th Congress's extraordinary first session comes to an end, its homegoing members might wonder what they will be remembered for in a hundred years.

The answer depends on whether the legislative changes wrought by Congress -- and the administration changes wrought on Congress -- turn out to have been the beginning of a tidal shift in US government. Or a passing blip on the radar screen of history.

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The difference will depend in the first place on how vigorously and efficiently the new legislative-administrative directions are carried out. Less federal taxing, funding, and regulation. More state, local, and individual responsibility. Less social spending. More military spending. The most intensive kind of follow-through will be necessary to ensure a fair chance for such departures from the recent past. Given such a chance, the test will be whether they work.

It would be ironic if the Democratic dissenters (boll weevils) and Republican dissenters (gypsy moths) were to have influence far beyond their minority status. But some of the boll weevils, having nudged Reagan Republican budget and tax programs to victory, began offering proposals to ease the ensuing deficits. And some of the gypsy moths, seeking what they consider a better balance between social cuts and military expansion, are seen as potential defectors from the solid GOP front Mr. Reagan has so remarkably maintained.

Such developments - along with some Democrats' unseemly sidelines glee over the troubles of Reaganomics -- make Congress seem close to business as usual again. Yet the 97th may well be remembered as the Congress that met more than its match in the White House. Old congressional hands shook their heads over the way the committee system could be bent to presidential wishes.

Of course, Congress itself started off the session by quietly backing away from the push for internal reforms that had been so encouraging to the public in previous years. Nor did it help its image by voting members a backdoor pay raise through increased tax breaks, while it was chopping away at government aid for the less well off.

Nevertheless, whatever the public controversy over the content of 1981 legislation, the 97th Congress deserves a certain year-end credit for getting things done.

The sorry failure to finish appropriations bills on schedule has been redeemed to some extent by such an achievement as bringing a foreign aid bill to the point of completion for the first time since 1979.

The failure to confront the long-term needs of the social security system has also been offset a bit: Senate and House negotiators reached agreement on saving the minimum social security benefit - but only for present recipients. And they agreed on shoring up short-term finances by permitting the social security trust funds to borrow from each other.

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Things done. Things left undone. Will the 97th be as bold, on the one hand, or as compliant, on the other, in its second session when an election looms at the end? Again, the choices it makes will determine whether the folks in 2081 remember more than the boll weevils and the gypsy moths.

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