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Big-picture politics

IT may take a little generosity to say so, given Congress's sullen and tempestuous treatment of tax reform and the Gramm-Rudman deficit measure. But behind the all-too-human drama this term, which reached its climax this week, was evident a tendency for Washington to play big-picture politics, to deal with broad competing interests and reforms. It wasn't tidy. The President himself was drawn into the at times farcical legislative drama: He signed the Gramm-Rudman budget measure in seclusion, then headed up to the Hill to plead for a little cooperation on the tax legislation from his own Republican congressmen -- who could be excused for failing to see why they should vote for a tax bill in a form that the President had said he would veto. Then passing the tax bill in the House on a voice vote late Tuesday evening, so individuals could not be h eld accountable, seemed a ludicrous finale for a measure that was said to be the centerpiece of this President's second-term domestic legislation.

The President had created many legislative problems for himself. He submitted a budget early in the year that was so unrealistic that the Republican leadership said straight out it could not be a basis for the budget process. In the summer the President turned down a bipartisan Senate compromise, crafted by Senator Dole and his colleagues, that could have secured much of the ``Reagan revolution's'' domestic goals: It offered an across-the-board spending curb, including even a one-year cost-of-living fre eze on social security. After this, there seemed no way out but to accept the Gramm-Rudman device, which -- if many things go right -- would chip away at the yearly budget deficits until they disappear five years out.

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Nonetheless, President Reagan has played a significant role in a change in Washington from what political scientists call ``low politics,'' or ``micro politics,'' wherein private dealmaking on behalf of constituents and interests leads to fragmentation, attrition, and paralysis. Reagan has helped raise the stakes in legislation so that leaders are compelled to negotiate. As his trip this week to the Hill attests, the President himself does not escape the pressures of the emerging ``high politics.''

It's fair enough to say, given the transformation of President Reagan's original tax bill -- which would, among other things, have treated many kinds of business income the same way -- that high politics doesn't look all that different from low politics. The House Democratic tax measure is partial reform, with negative consequences for investment. The Gramm-Rudman budget balance measure is a promissory note that will be reviewed in two years' time when the contest for the White House is renewed. Farm le gislation, too, commits the federal government to less aid for agriculture in principle -- with the bite to come later.

Much of this looks like ``duck-out politics.''

Still, some broad assumptions can be made. Tax reform will be moderate, not radical. The President has committed himself to restraints on defense spending, not just on nondefense spending. The business community and consumers have taken the measure of all this and, untidy as it may appear, they can see a rough outline for the major decisions ahead. They see no immediate wrenching change in the economy, but do see a shift toward confronting major spending imbalances. Tempting as it may be to point up the

vanities of the political process, there is reason to find some reassurance as well.

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