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Congress: The Sounds of Fury and Futility

January 12, 1986|Richard F. Cohen | Richard F. Cohen is congressional correspondent for the National Journal.

WASHINGTON — During the final night of the 1985 session, Congress played Ping- Pong with a major bill. The resulting stalemate marked a fitting end to the legislative year.

The chaotic and, ultimately, futile exercise began when the Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill that its budget analysts said would cut a projected $60 billion from the federal deficit by 1988. But the Democratic-controlled House responded by deleting a key section--a $5-billion tax that opponents called the first step toward a national sales tax--and returned the remainder to the Senate. Peeved by what seemed cavalier handling of a package on which Congress had labored for months, Senators then passed the original version including the new tax. The House then approved the bill again without the tax. Finally the Senate rejected the House alternative and asked the House to resume negotiations in the new year.

These actions left many in Congress furious, questioning whether they could agree on the time of day, let alone something as complex as the federal budget.

It was that kind of year. Both parties fretted about the economic and political impact of annual deficits exceeding $200 billion. Although the deficit was the year's all-encompassing issue, they complained that Reagan gave them little help. In an attempt to force future action, they even passed a bill requiring a balanced budget by 1991, jeopardizing the President's twin goals of higher defense spending and no tax increase.

But it was a different story in terms of immediate action. Lawmakers, especially Democrats, were wary of directly challenging a most popular President--even when they thought he was wrong.

The reassertion of congressional prerogatives, loudly trumpeted during the 1970s, produced considerable noise but few results. And the vaunted procedural reforms of the past decade, designed to break up the power of seniority and spread the power to junior lawmakers, proved a mixed blessing at best.

Even in the best of times, the 535 voices in Congress are difficult to meld into a governing consensus. A strong President occasionally can offer strong leadership, as Reagan showed for a few months during 1981. But periods of major legislative results historically are few and far between--usually following a presidential election in which issues have been clearly drawn. Reagan's "feel good" 1984 campaign yielded no such mandate. Absent the protection of compelling presidential leadership, Congress finds it difficult to risk offending many disparate and powerful interests.

The two most influential congressional leaders tried to assert their authority in 1985 but had limited success. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) wanted more attention paid to deficit reduction and less to tax reform; as 1986 dawned, however, little action had been completed in the former area and the latter seemed likely to preoccupy the Senate through spring. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) pointed out what he termed Administration failures but his tactics were largely defensive, dealing with the nuances, not the framework, set by Reagan.

In many ways 1985 was a dismal year for Congress:

--Lawmakers had a hard time getting down to work. Despite furious debate, they had not seriously addressed, let alone resolved, many issues by the Oct. start of the federal fiscal year, when the nation's spending decisions are supposed to have been settled. They then had a burst of pre-Christmas activity that yielded passage of a 1986 budget, a farm program and the landmark Gramm-Rudman-Hollings plan for a 1991 balanced budget.

Major bills left unresolved for 1986 included tax reform, immigration, the Superfund program to clean up toxic waste dumps and the stalemated deficit-reduction measure.

--Congressional actions generated little enthusiasm. Leading proponents of the balanced budget law and the House-passed tax reform bill candidly criticized their own handiwork and warned that Reagan ultimately would regret their support of his goals. Despite criticism of the President's economic direction from both parties, Congress had little success devising its own independent agenda. On defense and foreign policy issues, Congress trimmed programs such as the MX missile, the "Star Wars" satellite-defense plan and aid to Nicaraguan rebels; but in each case, Reagan won enough money to sustain the core of his proposal.

--Even though many of his policies were opposed by politicians and the public alike, Reagan retained widespread national popularity. Ironically, Republicans often seemed more willing to challenge his priorities than did Democratic leaders. But when Reagan took on his GOP critics, many meekly caved in; the two best examples were the Senate's effort to kill the annual social security inflation adjustment and the short-lived House GOP insurrection on tax reform.

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