Reference books track Reagan record, roles of federal agencies; The Reagan Record, edited by John L. Palmer and Isabel V. Sawhill. An Urban Institute study. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger Publishing Company, 440 pp. $28 (cloth), $12.95 (paper). Our Federal Government: How It Works, by Patricia C. Acheson. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co. 336 pp. $11.95 (paper).
Both of these are reference books. They contain well-organized, specific information, each section of which may be readily excerpted from the whole. The Reagan Record has been updated from its original publication in 1982. Its 11 authors have done a commendable job of compiling a comprehensive, nonpolemic summation of the Reagan administration's performance in various areas of policy, e.g., environment, budget, federalism.
This book is sure to be a timely help for those who desire to penetrate beyond the pre-election rhetoric. It will also provide an interesting reference point for future historical evaluations of the present administration, when it will be clearer whether this administration was a watershed in American political history, a mere aberration, or perhaps, when all the dust has settled, just a facelift for an aging welfare state.
Two caveats about ''The Reagan Record'':
* The authors too often give the President all the credit or blame for policies without taking due consideration of the fact that Congress makes the laws of the land. The heavily Democratic House of Representatives - led by a very liberal speaker who stacked key committees like Ways and Means against the President's party - has had considerable influence (on the record deficits, for example) on the ''Reagan record.''
* The economic analyses take a view that is too short term to be valid. The decapitalization of the United States (through inflation, taxation, and regulation) has been going on for decades, and the resultant damage cannot be undone in the span of one or two administrations, even if revolutionary policies are implemented, much less the evolutionary policies these authors describe. To say that lower-income families are less well off than in 1980 can be perfectly true, but it can also be true that the next generation of those families will be better off in the year 2000, if Reagan's policies are continued and expanded upon, than would otherwise have been the case.
But, too, it is well to remember that the 20th century's most famous political economist, Lord Keynes, advocated policies with short-term expediency, shrugging off the long-term consequences with the ominous remark, ''In the long run, we're all dead.''
Our Federal Government is a far more elementary book than ''The Reagan Record.'' It provides an overview of the structure of the US government.
As a reference for looking up a two- or three-page summary of what a particular executive department or independent agency does, Ms. Acheson's book has some limited usefulness.
It has, however, a serious defect: its almost worshipful adoration of the national government, viewing it as virtually omnicompetent. In Ms. Acheson's opinion, we might not have orange juice to drink, weather reports to listen to, or any way of sending letters to each other, were it not for Uncle Sam. The next time she updates her book, she ought to mention that many governments in the US and abroad are finding the privatization - i.e., getting the government out of various businesses - is improving the quality of life.