Dinosaur government: enormous body and tiny head

It's questionable whether President Reagan can get his bold new program through Congress -- in the form he sends it up, anyway. President Carter couldn't. The situation raises the deeper question of whether the American separation of powers, the system of checks and balances, can meet the intricate problems of the present day. Can American government govern? Or do we have a stalement system?

Many Americans, perhaps most, have an idea that after sending Mr. Reagan to Washington he can take over and enact his program. If he can't, they say, it's his fault. Some strong presidents have succeeded; the favorite example is Franklin Roosevelt. But he had the Great Depression to open doors. For the most part recent presidents haven't done so well. The fact is, the modern presidency, as an institution, is in trouble.

Jimmy Carter sent a boatload of proposals to Congress in the first year and a half. Mostly they foundered: cuts in pork- barrel water projects, hospital cost containment, comprehensive tax reform, social security finance reform. These and similar bills weren't handled too well and the Carter staff was inexperienced. The result, from his point of view, was disastrous. Perhaps the Reagan team will do better. He wants to slash taxes, for example, and to balance this with drastic budget cuts. Will Congress make deep cuts in welfare, in social security benefits, in farm subsides, in scores of similar favorite programs? Not if I know Congress! And it isn't only Congress. We have veto powers in Washington scattered all over the lot -- ferocious lobbies, entrenched small- interest groups, congressional subcommittees, bureaucratic cubbyholes of power in the departments, linked to specific special programs. Maybe Mr. Reagan can overrule these -- appeal to the public -- in his first 100 days, his honeymoon period yet. I think there is no point of government on which the average American is less aware than the gap between what a new president is supposed to do, and what he can do once he gets to Washington.

All the new books on the presidency tend to cite this. A forthcoming study, "Memorandum for the President" by Ben Heineman and Curtis A. Hessler (Random House), goes into detail. They think that without a comprehensive, strategic program of basic projects right at the outset Mr. Reagan's failure on the domestic front "is virtually certain."

Maybe so. They aren't the only ones. I'm not arguing on the merits. The point is that millions of people who voted for Reagan (as million did for Carter four years ago) don't understand what the problems were and are in Washington. In an interview in US News & World Report, Theodore Lowi, an authority on the presidency at Cornell, is asked, "Are you saying the public has come to expect too much from the president?" His answer: "Of course. . . it's like the dinosaur -- an enormous body and a tiny head. We believe that the head of this dinosaur is so potent and so wise that it can make appropriate and effective choices, but it cannot."

Take another witness, Thomas J. Hughes, president of the Carnegie Endowment, writing in the fall issue of Foreign Policy.He's anxious about foreign policy: "The rest of the world is now asking rather insistently whether a rigid strict constructionist Constitution -- with its executive-congressional acrimony and its federal-state anomalies, asserted by small-minded lawyers, litigated by a captious society, and interpreted by literalist judges -- is compatible with America's role as a superpower in the 1980s. There is the gravest doubt abroad that it is."

And finally there's Lloyd Cutler, former White House counsel, declaring in another magazine that it isn't what a president proposes but what Congress accepts that decides policy in Washington. Under this handicap, he argues, a president can neither govern effectively nor can he be held truly accountable by the public. This is particularly so, Mr. Cutler thinks, in foreign affairs. President Carter negotiated the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty but the Constitution allow one-third of the Senate, 34 members, to block this or any treaty. It is a veto power by 34 out of a Congress of 535.

There are vetoes all over Washington.(Take the Federal Reserve Board, for example.) The drama for the next year may be in seeing whether Mr. Reagan can head off such vetoes or override them.

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