President Reagan has forecast a great closing act for his final year in office, which started this week. But on Capitol Hill 1988 should be considered a year of lowered expectations. The calendar itself makes the likelihood of major new initiatives improbable. The presidential nominating conventions will take a big bite out of session time, and so will Congress members' own need to campaign for reelection.
Leftover agenda items from 1987 will consume considerable amounts of time in Congress. They include the confirmation of Judge Anthony M. Kennedy's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, ratification of the intermediate-nuclear-force treaty with the Soviet Union and a trade agreement with Canada.
Much of the agenda for Congress is set by the President, and this year he wants to focus major attention not on the domestic front but on relations with the Soviet Union. That will include keeping pressure on the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, negotiating a strategic-nuclear-missile treaty and more than likely a trip to Moscow for another summit meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Reagan's 1988 program will be outlined during his State of the Union address next week, but early indications are that the President will speak in general outlines and not in specifics. Further details will come in mid-February, when the President sends Congress his final budget--the spending plan for fiscal 1989 beginning next Oct. 1. There is no reason to believe that his fiscal priorities will be significantly different from what they have been for the past seven years.
There is room for hope, however, that Congress and the President will not grapple through the year in angry budget stalemate as they did in most of 1987, until after the stock market crash Oct. 19. The market plunge triggered a shaky fiscal truce leading to a two-year budget deficit and tax agreement that is supposed to carry through the coming year. If the deal holds, Congress should be able to pass its regular 13 appropriations bills on time this year, rather than lumping total federal spending into one pork-laden catch-all continuing resolution, as occurred in the past two years. This should be one of Congress' urgent priorities, not just for efficient government but to restore some of the credibility that the House and Senate lost in the budget messes of recent years.
House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) has listed four other priorities for the session: welfare reform, catastrophic health insurance, aid to education, and the trade bill. Those items, the trade bill in particular, are bound to spark differences with the Administration, but Wright's agenda does not seem overly ambitious if Congress and the Administration can make a sincere attempt to reconcile their differences.
Reconciliation may get off to a rocky start, however, because of an early battle now under way over aid to the Nicaraguan rebels. Except for the fiscal compromise last fall, 1987 was a year of confrontation between the President and a Congress in which both houses again were controlled by Democrats. Congressional Quarterly reports that Reagan won only 12.5% of the key votes on which the Administration took a stand last year--down from a success rate of 87% in 1981.
Both sides face the usual election-year dilemma in 1988 of attempting to appear constructive to voters while trying to keep the opposing party from achieving any campaign edge. At the very least, Congress and the Administration should agree that all would benefit if they can restore some reason and timeliness to the budget and appropriations process.