A PRESIDENT'S relations with Congress always make for good sport. But they can also get in the way of productive governing. Ronald Reagan certainly found that out. Despite his personal popularity, a relatively high percentage of his vetoes were overridden. Many of his pet programs were sat on. And the White House attitude toward lawmakers was largely confrontational. Capitol Hill wasn't quite the ``evil empire'' to the president's men, but neither was it Mr. Roger's Neighborhood.
It takes two to make a fight, of course, and men like Tip O'Neill, Robert Byrd, and Jim Wright have to take a good bit of the blame. Thoroughly probing Oliver North and crew is fine, and maybe standing up for the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty when it's under attack by ``star wars.'' But muscling into Central America diplomacy, as House Speaker Wright did, is quite another thing. And the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law is as clear a symbol as any of the failure by both branches of government to get control of federal spending.
So the opening days of the Bush administration provide welcome relief. The initial signals, the oh-so-polite minuet between Secretary of State James Baker and Senators, indicate the prospect of more kindness and gentleness at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Having served on the Hill himself, the new President knows when to wheedle and when to threaten and when to finesse. His Cabinet is largely a good, gray group of ``politocrats'' who have worked inside the Capital Beltway for years. Not as flashy as the California dragon slayers maybe, but they seem more interested in making government work than scoring ideological points.
And there's a lot of work to be done, no doubt, starting with getting that pesky budget deficit down. Bush says ``read my lips'' on taxes; Democrats on the Hill say ``what about education, the environment, and childcare, which you promised our constituents you'd look after?''
Sins of the past need to be paid for as well - tens (maybe hundreds) of billions of dollars each for cleaning up nuclear weapons plants and propping up those hundreds of savings and loan institutions that are insolvent or close to it. It will take more than raising gasoline taxes (even if disguised as ``user fees'') to cover those kinds of expenses without big cuts elsewhere.
Campaign finance, government ethics, rewriting the Clean Air Act and farm law, health care for the uninsured. The list of things to do stretches over the horizon. So it's good to have the first days of Bush's administration and the 101st Congress be ones of amity. It's always easier to grab hold of a problem when the hand is open rather than clenched.