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Congress' 1987 Fights With Reagan Viewed as Constitutional Role Battle

December 23, 1987|SARA FRITZ and KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Congress adjourned Tuesday, ending an unusually rancorous year that sorely tested the constitutional relationship between the legislative branch and the President.

Throughout 1987 and even into its final hours, the Democrat-controlled Congress clashed repeatedly with President Reagan on a wide variety of matters, including the budget deficit, Reagan's sale of arms to Iran, assistance for the Nicaraguan resistance and U.S. military involvement in the Persian Gulf.

In addition, Congress handed the President several serious legislative setbacks by rejecting the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court and enacting two major bills--one providing for clean water and the other funding highway construction--over Reagan's veto.

Lapse of Funding

So deep were the divisions between Reagan and Congress that they let the bureaucracy go unfunded for more than a day before adjournment as they fought over continued appropriations for the Contras and the renewal of the broadcasting industry's so-called Fairness Doctrine.

But unlike most years, when squabbling between Congress and the White House can be attributed purely to political differences, the debate in 1987 was seen as a more fundamental struggle over the constitutional roles of the two branches of government.

"Indeed," Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said last week, "it is my belief that 1987 was a year of constitutional challenge and struggle regarding the separation of powers. . . . The Congress and the Administration were engaged in a vigorous and most serious debate over how the power of this government, derived from the people, should be exercised."

The Iran-Contra affair exposed a general disregard for Congress inside the Reagan White House that embittered many members of both parties--making smooth relations between the two branches almost impossible. Reagan's former aides publicly acknowledged that they had lied to congressional committees on the grounds that Congress should not be meddling in the executive branch's foreign-policy initiatives.

Senate Role in Treaties

Likewise, the Administration's decision to reinterpret terms of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty were viewed on Capitol Hill as an attempt to circumvent the Senate's role in treaty ratification. And the battle over the Bork nomination eventually came down to a quarrel over the Senate's right to advise and consent on judicial nominations.

Convinced that Reagan was trying to bypass them, members of Congress sought to reassert their role as equal partners in governance. By rejecting the Bork nomination, pressing its own interpretation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and frequently asserting its independent will on other issues, Byrd said, Congress succeeded in restoring the constitutional balance.

"I believe the 100th Congress has maintained the balance and checked the abuses," he said.

Some of the quarreling was nevertheless inevitable, since 1987 was the first year of the Reagan presidency in which Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Democrats contend that Reagan, who had become accustomed to getting his own way in the early years, still has not fully realized that a divided government demands compromise.

'Wasn't in Step'

Frequently, the Democrats who are running Congress saw it as their duty to rein in the President's more strident policies. "The Administration went to the very outer limits--it wasn't in step with the American people," Byrd said. "Again and again, the energy of the Congress was committed to maintaining the mainstream political consensus."

As a test of the new Democratic leadership, however, the year was not a raving success.

Many programs long supported by Democrats suffered new cutbacks and few, if any, new initiatives were enacted into law, even though some major pieces of legislation--such as a trade bill, catastrophic health insurance and welfare reform--are waiting to be passed next year in the second session of the 100th Congress.

"It hasn't been a complete bust, but I'll tell you it's been pretty near that," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.). And Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said: "We have done some things but I can't remember what."

Democrats, of course, had a more positive view of the year's accomplishments. Byrd insisted that Congress made "healthy and positive progress" on a number of policy fronts, and House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) noted that the Democrat-controlled Congress succeeded in increasing money for the homeless, AIDS research and education.

Deficit Reduction Pact

Yet, neither Democrats nor Republicans were especially proud of the session's most widely publicized achievement--the deficit reduction package that was negotiated in the wake of the Oct. 19 stock market crash. In Dole's words, Congress "missed an opportunity there for a bold move" when it settled for a modest plan to reduce the projected shortfall by $76 billion over the next two years.

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