Frost on the seesaw of power
The balance between congressional and presidential leadership has gone through two centuries of ups and downs, and the seesaw will continue in the third century. It is a distinguishing feature of American government. Watching things here in Washington I gave a sigh the other day; like the coming of cold weather, it seemed that the telltale newspapers columns were getting frosty to President Reagan. It seemed suddenly that one column after the other was captious, questioning, or critical.
Franklin Roosevelt, of course, started the idea that the president could fix things. He was elected four times. Republicans took care of that; they promoted the posthumous anti-Roosevelt 22nd Amendment: "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice. . ." . Congress passed it in 1947, and the states enacted it in February 1951 when President Truman's control of things was running out and Congress was asserting itself.
These things go in cycles. The low point of Congress in recent times, according to knowledgeable James L. Sundquist, in his new study "The Decline and Resurgence of Congress," came around 1973 under Mr. Nixon; Congress lost the battle of the budget to the White House and accepted the president's right to impoundment, i.e., deciding whether or not to spend the money which Congress voted. (Congress has subsequently rejected impoundment.) Congress was on a downslide. From a positive rating of 64 on the Harris poll in 1965 the public's estimation of Congress slipped to 21 percent in February 1974.Then came Watergate.
Congress reasserted itself aggressively at this point particularly in the foreign policy field.Harold J. Laski once wrote the Congress "is always looking for occasions to differ from" the president, "and it never feels so really comfortable as when it has found such an occasion for difference. In doing so, it has the sense that it is affirming its own essence." Some of this feeling has entered the battle over Mr. Reagan's proposed sale of the AWACS reconnaissance planes to the Saudis. The president has to make controversial decisions like AWACS and makes opponents with every one. Yes, says a more recent writer, Thomas K. Finletter: "The American system is so constituted that it produces a conflict between the executive and Congress every time the executive tries to be positive and strong."
It is a queer system. The nation leads the free world and is threatened by a powerful opponent. But who is in charge? Three president over seven years negotiated SALT II and Mr. Carter signed it, but Senate ratification was another matter. The U.S. alone, among either democracies or dictatorships, has the separation of powers. Douglas Dillon, former treasury secretary and under secretary of state, doubts whether "we can long continue to afford the luxury of the division of power and responsibility between our executive and legislative branches of government." Who know?
Another oddity about the governmental system is being emphasized today in Washington. This is the normal buffeting of the new president after the honeymoon period. The media build up the presidential candidates through the 37 primaries, and the nominee emerges from the national convention as a superman: give him the White House and he will solve all our problems. The attitude is not discouraged by campaign headquarters. Sophisticated voters question this, and for each of the last five presidential elections the percentage of those eligible to vote who voted has declined, dropping to around 54 percent last year.
Reality returns after the new president is installed, and that is the point we have reached now with Mr. Reagan. I fell sympathy for him; other men have gone through the same problem.
There would be less letdown, I think, if we had stronger and more responsible political parties; then we should have a better idea what's in the election package. Mr. Sundquist doesn't go into this speculation, but he makes a forecast about the congressional cycle. He thinks, "The 1980s should be a period of relative stability, with a new cycle of slow decline of the Congress in favor of the President, probably beginning some time in the decade." Or, at least, that's the way it has been before.