Washington — President Reagan has reached the critical point in determining his relations with Congress and threatens to appeal to America over its head. The relationship has determined the success or failure of modern executives as a built-in aspect of the separation of powers. Among recent chief executives , President Nixon for a while achieved ascendancy over a Democratic Congress; President Ford was in office too short a time to resolve his relationship; and President Carter failed to achieve a satisfactory relationship. Now comes Preaident Reagan.
The congressional-presidential relationship looms large in the management of the US economy, a domestic issue of critical importance.
Under the system of divided powers, the president in effect asks for what he wants to direct the economy and Congress decides what he gets. Some sort of accommodation makes the system work. The accommodation now is being worked out in a classic instance.
President Nixon dominated a Congress by fast footwork: He impounded funds, deferred spending, shifted money from side to side, and gained control of the allocation of resources. He was aided because he was not pushing any massive domestic program and made foreign policy his priority.
Congress has become more formidable as a political body than it was in the 1950s and early 1960s. It is more activist, more aggressive, younger, and has a bigger staff. It has an enormous capacity to frustrate the legislative ambitions of presidents. President Carter at a 1978 news conference gave his proposed energy program as an example of problems with Congress -- as important to him as the issue of the balanced budget is to President Reagan today.
"The energy legislation is one example," Carter said. "I never dreamed a year ago in April when I proposed this matter to Congress that a year later it still would not be resolved." He said he had a growing understanding of Congress -- its limitations, capabilities, and leadership -- "which was a new experience to me altogether, never having lived or served in the federal government in Washington."
Mr. Reagan has not served in Washington before, either, and is getting his first test under fire. Ther is a difference, however: It is generally felt that the Reagan staff is better adapted to deal with Congress than was Carter's.
The mood of Congress has changed since the showdown with Nixon that ended with Watergate. Congress passed the restrictive War Powers Act of 1972 and the Budget and the Impoundment Control Act of 1974; made important changes in the committee system, particularly in the House; and expanded the congressional staff. Congress now employs about 18,000 workers on its saffs, roughly 11,500 in the House and 6,500 in the Senate. (In 1981 it numbered 62 in the House, and 41 in the Senate.) Today the second-most-heavily staffed legislature in the world is the Canadian Parliament, with about 3,330 workers. Each committee and subcommittee has its own staff. The workload grows, but the individual member is better informed.
"Congress is far more formidable as a political body today," wrote political scientist Samuel C. Patterson in 1978," than it was in the more quiescent days of the 1950s and early 1960s. Congress is semi-sovereign."
This is the situation Reagan faces in his contest with Congress on tax cuts. On his side he has the enormous asset of the White House sounding board, if he can use it, and the popularity that has marked his first half-year.
Presidential popularity normally declines during the four-year term. This was true of Carter; the legislative branch was independent and anxious to assume a major policymaking role. The Senate blocked SALT II and the House balked on domestic proposals.
Former Democratic Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine in 1975 urged congressional restraint: "A Congress should not be president; it should be a reflection of the will of our people, and the problems that disturb them and the actions they want taken."
Like a marriage, every relationship between president and Congress i s different. Reagan now is working out his own.