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End of a Washington era: 'reform' falls on hard times

By Peter C. StuartStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 6, 1980


The often-dizzying flow of government reforms in the 1970s is showing signs of coming to an abrupt halt, and perhaps reversing, as the new decade begins. In the great wave of national moral reassessment that followed by Vietnam war. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) misadventures, and the Watergate Scandal. American government had in rapid succession:

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* Curbed the military powers of the President.

* Ended the draft.

* Tightened supervisions of the CIA.

* Installed new safeguards against political corruption.

* Democratized Congress.

* Tinkered with the federal election machinery.

The '70s are only a half year behind us, but already important elements of all these reforms are being seriously questioned, sidestepped, softened, or virtually repealed altogether.

"Perhaps it went too far," says one House of Representatives Democrat who in the past supported much of the reformism. "Now we are trying to redress the balance. The pendulum is swinging the other way."

Among the measures getting a critical second look:

Curbs on the President's power to hand out foreign military aid. Congress appears ready to relax several restriction imposed during the late 1960s and early '70s, when lawmakers became concerned that Presidents Johnson and Nixon were abusing their aid-dispensng power to escalate the Vietnam war.

At the top of the list: quintupling from $10 million to $50 million the annual limit on emergency military supplies and services which the President on his own can send to friendly countries -- a device Mr. Nixon used to arm the Cambodian military without the approval of Congress.

The house is expected to approve the liberalizations this week.

Requiring the President to consult Congress before launching military operations abroad. The consultation provisions of the War Powers Act of 1973, another legacy of congressional frustration over Vietnam, went conspicuously umused in the abortive mission in April to rescue the 53 American hostage in iran.

President Carter contends the law did not apply, but many lawmakers, including both proponents and opponents of it at the time it was enacted, say the measure was circumvented.

The military draft. Seven years after its end as perhaps the most disruptive symbol of an unpopular war -- generating countless mass protests and turning thousands of young Americans into draft resisters -- conscription has taken a long step back into national life.

At the President request in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the House in April approved registering 19- and 20-year- olds for military service. The Senate is scheduled to act this week.

Closer congressional scrutiny of the CIA. Congress is preparing to surrender much of the prior notification of covert CIA operations which it required in 1974, largely in reaction to disclosures about the intelligence agency's role in undermining the Allende government in Chile.

The senate agreed June 3, on an almost routine vote of 89 to 1, to cut the number of congressional committees receiving notice from eight to two. The House is soon expected to followed. The rationable: to lower the risk of leaks.