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Divided (and conquered)

This is vacation time when many teachers and debate coaches are preparing schedules for the coming year. What are the hot topics, they ask, and what are the sources and reference books? Nothing better of its kind has come my way in the past year than two rather improbable paperbound compilations of testimony taken by the Joint Economic Committee of Congress under its then chairman, Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D) of Wisconsin, called simply, ''Hearings on Political Economy and Constitutional Reform.'' What are the strengths and weaknesses of America's unique government? Knowledgeable authorities summarize the arguments. The volumes can be obtained by a request to: Congressional Joint Economic Committee, Washington, D.C., 20510. Until recently, the staff tells me, there were free copies.

''The United States ranks at or near the bottom among the industrialized democracies in the percentage of citizens of voting age who actually go to the polls and exercise their franchise,'' testified former Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon Nov. 17, 1982.

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What are the consequences of our loose system? some asked. Well, noted James L. Sundquist of the Brookings Institution, ''in June 1962, President Kennedy finally . . . decided that a drastic tax reduction was necessary. The cut was finally enacted after an excruciating expenditure of political energy and 20 months' of delay. During the same period the British government, facing the same circumstances, designed and passed a proportionately larger cut in a matter of a few weeks, without any noticeable fuss or tension.''

Quite a contrast! Some witnesses expressed dissatisfaction. Here is testimony by Lloyd N. Cutler, former counsel to President Carter. He asserted that ''the president of the United States is the only head of government in the civilized world who cannot commit the government he heads'' on foreign affairs issues. Perhaps so; certainly back in Woodrow Wilson's time Congress rejected the League of Nations, and more recently the Senate turned down the SALT II agreement negotiated by Nixon, Ford, and Carter.

Prof. James MacGregor Burns of Williams College noted the decline of US political parties, and the growth of ''divided government.'' This is when one party controls the White House and the other party one or both chambers of Congress. ''We have had a divided government more than half the time since 1954, '' he explained.

Prominent witnesses told the Reuss committee why they favored or opposed constitutional amendments: the six-year term, the choice of the cabinet from sitting members of Congress, and the like. Ideas like these, I suppose, will be argued with increasing interest in the four years before the US celebrates the Constitution's bicentennial in 1987. Chairman Reuss notes what he thinks is growing dissatisfaction with the government: Look at the deficit!

''Back in 1966,'' he says, ''almost 42 percent of the American people said they had a great deal of confidence in the Congress and the president; by 1979, less than 18 percent felt any such confidence, according to a Lou Harris poll. And, except for the slight increase registered in the 1982 mid-term election, participation in elections has been steadily declining.''

Just the same, defenders of the system get a voice in the second part of the testimony. There is a discussion of ''the strengths and weaknesses of the parliamentary system,'' for example. All in all, there hasn't been a congressionally sponsored analysis of the government like this that I can remember. It is a two-part compendium on a critical subject for scholars and disputants.

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