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On Balance, Not Too Shabby

December 23, 1987

By their very nature, the endings of legislative sessions rarely are tidy matters. Thus it is easy to cudgel Congress for pushing the government to the brink of shutdown on a day-to-day basis while lawmakers haggled over a budget and tax program. Lumping all 13 appropriation bills into one giant ball of budget wax and string, along with odd appendages like restrictions on smoking in airliners and tinkering with speed limits, is not an efficient or satisfactory way to do the nation's business.

On the whole, however, the 1987 session of Congress was not the dismal affair that some critics rushed to claim. The budget did come late, and only after panicky pleadings from Wall Street following the Oct. 19 market crash to "do something" about the deficit problem--as if that was the sole cause of the financial crisis.

But the final package serves the nation far better fiscally than the alternative: the arbitrary budget cuts of the Gramm-Rudman deficit-reduction law. What the market crash did was to prompt a recalcitrant Republican Administration to deal finally with the Democratic-controlled Congress on fiscal issues.

Until then the Administration and Republicans in Congress sat on their hands and told Democrats, "It's your problem." Intramural differences among Democrats made it difficult for them to achieve action on their own on tough budget choices involving deep philosophical splits--aid to Nicaragua, for instance. Democrats and moderate Republicans had formed a more effective coalition on some fiscal issues, with the White House in opposition, when Republicans controlled the Senate.

It is difficult for Congress to make progress without leadership from the White House, regardless of which party is in power. The White House had long ago set the agenda that got the nation into the deficit mess, and it was not about to change it in 1987: Cut domestic spending, give more money to defense and cut taxes. This legacy colored all that Congress did, and severely limited its options for action.

The 1987 session was further complicated by the Iran-Contra affair and the consideration of three successive Supreme Court nominations. Still, Congress came up with a two-year deficit-reduction plan; transportation, clean water and housing bills; increased money for AIDS education and research, and help for the homeless. Significant progress was made on other national problems that have been neglected in the 1980s.

These are not easy issues, particularly when there is a divided government and an absence of constructive leadership from the White House. Nor is assembling a budget a simple matter of adding up numbers. Budget decisions involve people in need and programs of proven value. Settlement requires the reconciliation of political differences between elected members of Congress, most of whom work earnestly and sincerely for what they think is right.

In 1987 Congress did what most Congresses do in an awkward, imperfect democratic system:It muddled through and got most of the people's business done.

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