Washington — It is usually assumed, almost automatically, that the overriding priority on the Reagan agenda is dealing with the state of the economy. I suggest that there is a matter of equal, if not prior, urgency. I refer to the need of the president and the new Congress to join in restoring to the federal government the capacity to govern.
Before Mr. Reagan can accomplish much else, it is imperative to end the nongovernment which has prevailed so often since the tragic end of the Vietnam war and Watergate.
The need is to create the will and the mechanism -- coordination between the White House and the Congress -- which will enable them to transact the public business responsibly and on time.
Neither side has been free of blame in the past. Democratic presidents have fared little better than Republican presidents in dealing with Democratic congresses.
The time is at hand and the circumstances are favorable for establishing a cooperative and constructive relationship between the new administration and the 97th Congress. Little that is crucial can be done without it; whatever is required can be achieved with it.
During the campaign I ventured the view that more important than the presidency was electing a Congress which would work in sympathy with, not in hostility to, the president. Apparently the great majority of the nation's voters had the same idea and as a result they gave Mr. Reagan a Republican Senate and significantly shifted the center of the House to the political right.
The prospects for a "do-something Congress" are better than they have been for a long time. President Reagan takes office under more supportive political conditions than either President Eisenhower or President Nixon did. Both won overwhelmingly, but only in the case of Reagan did the voters install a Congress more nearly in his image.
It will be vital for President Reagan to show that he is prepared to counsel with both the Democratic and the Republican leadership on legislation before it goes to Congress. He has already shown that he is intent upon treating Congress as a partner, not as a rival. His first act on his first visit to Washington after the election was to go to Capitol Hill to meet with the leaders of both parties. He pointed to the president's office in the Capitol building and remarked: "I don't intend to do all my congressional conferring in the White House; I will come up here to confer as well."
Obviously the president will not win all he wants by giving the congressional leaders of both parties a share in shaping legislation in advance, but this process will pave the way better than the kind of confrontation which occured so often in recent years.
Congress has not enhanced its standing with the public by the way it has acted to frustrate recent presidents. In opinion polls congressmen rate rather low in public esteem -- along with reporters.
The multiple economic, social, and foreign crises overhanging the United States today cry for a "do- something Congress." All will benefit; the nation will benefit, the Congress and the president will benefit.
There is another reform which would bring the Congress, the president, and the country closer together to mutual advantage. There is growing support for a "congressional question period" at which members of the cabinet -- and occasionally the president himself -- could be cross-examined by members of the House and Senate. It would help educate the Congress, it would help educate the president and the cabinet; it will keep the country more intimately informed.
Why should reporters be the only ones able to question the president and cabinet officials in public?