The new 97th Congress that convenes in the United States this week faces a roster of major challenges, ranging from economic slump and high inflation at home to the danger of Soviet adventurism and the lingering Iranian hostage crisis abroad. But perhaps the greatest challenge of all for the nation's 535 lawmakers will be getting a firmer grip on the legislative process itself so that Congress fulfills the constitutional role assigned to it as the nation's chief deliberative body.
There is real question about whether Congress is properly discharging its duties.
Opinion polls continue to show that the majority of americans regard Capitol Hill with a large measure of cynicism for what is perceived as its obstructionism, its lethargy about national problems, and its too frequent scandals -- private scandals such as alcoholism to public ones like Koreagate and Abscam. There can be little praise, for example, in the fact that the recent 96th Congress passed into history leaving 5 of 13 appropriations bill unresolved.
The sense of new beginnings for the 97th Congress is thus very appropriate -- and much needed by the legislative process in general. This Congress, after all , starts off as politically rare, with Republicans controlling the Senate for the first time in a quarter century. And while the House will technically have a Democratic majority, in fact a coalition of conservative House Democrats and Republicans should -- taken together with the new Senate -- present the incoming Reagan administration with an opportunity to score important initial legislative victories.
Will that prove to be the case? Many administrations, particularly those facing a "split" Congress like the 97th, have seen initial hopes dashed through legislative infighting. The classic case of administration-congressional cooperation surely remains the early days of the New Deal, when legislation seemed to cascade onto the desk of FDR. Perhaps more typical, however, was the confusion that faced President Hoover in 1930-32, when Republicans held a bare majority in the Senate and faced a Democratic House that used delay and amendments to kill the administration's relief program. President Truman faced the hostile GOP 80th Congress in 1946 that logjammed much of his domestic agenda. Even President Carter's own Democratic 96th Congress rewrote much of his energy legislation and proved to be one of his biggest overall problems.
Will Mr. Reagan find the 97th Congress to be more responsive and open to possible cooperation than past Congresses? We would hope so. The President-elect has already shown himself to be highly accessible to lawmakers and willing to sit down and talk out differences. There need not be total agreement on the particulars, or even the philosophy, of the upcoming legislative agenda. Congress has a grave responsibility to ensure that it does not walk away from problems or enter into blatant political bickering.
Politically, the 97th Congress will face two initial tests. There will be the confirmation hearings for proposed administration officials. And there will be consideration of Mr. Reagan's budget and tax cut proposals. Congress must fulfill its obligations of confirmation without resorting to political grandstanding. And it must join the new administration in seeking creative solutions to the nation's current economic woes.
There are many areas where the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic House already see eye to eye, such as devising more favorable depreciation schedules for business, and slashing unnecessary federal red tape. Regarding the budget, Congress will rightly want to know where the Reagan team wishes to make cuts. Will they come primarily in social service areas such as food stamp programs, or other federal expenditures for the poor? Or will Congress itself go after many of its special interest programs, such as porkbarrel highway and water projects?
Most important, will the Republicans, who have for years talked about the need for new approaches rather than just the New Deal to Great Society social welfare initiatives of past years, at last come forward with a successful legislative agenda of their own? "We've been given the ball, and we have to produce," says Michigan Republican Guy Vander Jagt. How well the Republicans "produce" will determine whether their gains this past November were part of a new pattern, or just a brief stint at the top, as happened to the Republicans back in 1952 through 1954, until once again toppled by Democrats.
For Congress this is a time for good beginnings -- and good follow-through as well.