Congress's number one product this year is noise. But it took some positive steps on deficit cutting
In characteristically rancorous fashion, the 100th Congress has lurched toward year-end adjournment. An 11th-hour showdown with President Reagan over a massive spending bill is merely the latest of a series of skirmishes this year between the executive and legislative branches. (The budget, Page 3.)
Partisan wrangling - whether it concerned United States policy in the Persian Gulf and Central America, or the budget and trade deficits, or Supreme Court nominations - provoked volumes of rhetoric. It prevented the President and Congress from accomplishing much together. The most contentious items on the political agenda wait to be addressed another day.
And yet, for all the acrimony and gridlock, 1987 has been far from a bust.
Perceived failures have masked a few important achievements. An agreement last month to trim the federal budget deficit by some $76 billion over two years earned a Bronx cheer from many commentators and lawmakers. Such critics considered the package a weak surrogate for what they felt could have been accomplished in the wake of the October stock market collapse.
Nevertheless, the agreement outlined a plan for the single largest swipe ever taken at the deficit. It also established a high-water mark for cooperation between a president and a Congress on deficit reduction. ``We sat down and talked,'' says Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. ``That is a precedent to be taken seriously.''
Additionally, the contradictory political interests of the President and his opponents have, at times, been curiously served by the same events. Political reverberations of the stock market collapse forced the administration to negotiate with Congress and, ultimately, accede to the sort of tax increase that the President had vowed to oppose.
That constituted a victory for the Democrats. But the collapse also may have strengthened the President's hand in opposing Democratic efforts to stiffen US trade laws. Administration officials and many independent analysts argue that the threat of rising global protectionism was as responsible as any other single factor for the turmoil in world financial markets. As a result, the Senate next year is expected to produce a milder version of the pending trade bill than it otherwise might have.
At other times this year, congressional Democrats appear to have actually done administration officials a favor by opposing them. White House and State Department officials have been aggravated by Democratic opposition to their plans to reinterpret the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to allow advanced ``star wars'' testing.
Administration officials now concede that that opposition gave Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a pretext to avoid confronting Reagan on the nettlesome SDI issue during the recent summit in Washington. Instead, Soviet officials settled for a vaguely worded passage in the final joint communiqu'e calling for adherence to the ABM Treaty.
This year's congressional session drew to a close in much the same way that it opened - with a veto threat from the President and agitated words from all sides. The conflict centered on a $606 billion legislative behemoth to fund all government programs during the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. President Reagan threatened to veto the bill unless Congress included a short-term continuation of aid to Nicaraguan contras.
In the end, the President prevailed: Late Saturday, Democrats agreed to give the President much of what he wanted. Last January, as the administration reeled from the early aftershocks of the Iran-contra debacle, few would have predicted that outcome.
Democrats had hardly warmed their seats as the Senate's majority party when President Reagan threw the gauntlet at them, vetoing three major bills in rapid sequence. In response, the Democrat-controlled Congress promptly returned the favor and overrode the vetoes.
The tone of the year was thus set. The President, faltering politically, seemed fated to fight with Democrats and win little to show for it. Democrats were invigorated in the wake of the previous November's congressional elections, which had augmented an already sizable majority in the House and returned control of the Senate to their hands after six years of Republican rule. Newly confident Democratic leaders drew up an ambitious legislative agenda that Reagan administration officials felt, for the most part, constituted an attack on their earlier accomplishments.
To many in his own party, Reagan did not seem up to the challenge of defending his administration against a full-force Democratic assault. ``The White House hasn't given us a whole lot of direction,'' complained Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas in February. Indeed, Reagan did not counter the Democrats' plans with an agenda of his own. At the same time, his administration was reeling from the Iran-contra scandal and experiencing an inevitable decline in political influence.
But since then, events have conspired to boost the President's authority at some important moments. Last week's allegations by a high-level Sandinista defector of a major military buildup in Nicaragua aided White House efforts to win congressional assent for contra aid. ``Iran-contra feels pretty far away,'' marveled one administration representative Saturday.
For that, the administration can partly thank divisions in the Democratic ranks. Last summer's 41 days of televised Iran-contra hearings provided Congress's most dramatic moments. But the political implications of the affair have become less certain as Republican opposition and Democratic disagreements have sidelined reform legislation. Efforts to invoke War Powers Act restrictions on US activities in the Persian Gulf have temporarily sunk under similar pressure.
Legislation to overhaul the welfare system, to introduce catastrophic health insurance, and to cut the trade deficit - high priorities on the Democrats' agenda - has been passed by the House.
``We've succeeded in accomplishing most of our goals,'' states House Speaker Jim Wright (D) of Texas.
But the Senate, with a considerably stronger Republican minority, has deferred action on these items until next year. It is almost certain that the legislation emerging from the second session of the 100th Congress will be milder than Democrats once hoped.
Still, Democrats can sit back and enjoy conservative discomfiture over the present course of the Reagan presidency. Having negotiated a nuclear weapons agreement with the Soviets and appointed an apparently moderate jurist to the Supreme Court, Ronald Reagan, some conservatives fear, has abandoned their cause.
For that, Democrats will take some of the credit. Says Senator Byrd: ``We have helped him understand what the last election meant.''
First in a series reviewing 1987 and looking ahead to next year. Tomorrow: US foreign policy.