Washington — Only a doomed filibuster in the US Senate stands today between President Reagan and the signing of his $750 billion tax bill. The week since his July 26 speech -- with his victory on the House and Senate floors, followed by the rushed weekend conference between the two houses to ready the final bill -- provided the stuff political myths are made of.
But a closer look at the president's privotal success in the House last week shows, as on the budget fights earlier, his winning margin came more from his ability to rally his own party and Republican-oriented Democrats than in a rout of the opposition itself.
A Monitor check on the congressional voting profiles and 1980 election margins of the 48 Democrats who defected to the Reagan's side suggests the President's Monday night speech may have provided the excuse as much as the reason for joining the President.
As a group, the defecting Democrats were in little political danger. Nearly a fourth of them had run unpposed in the last election. The rest won their districts with an average of 67 percent of the vote -- well ahead of President Reagan's average of 51.3 percent in the 48 districts. The President, in fact, fared less than 1 percent better in their districts than in all districts nationwide, where his 1980 winning percentage was 50.7 percent.
The 48 defectors' winning margins were far more secure than the margins of the majority of Democrats who did not defect. Democratic congressmen in the 1980 election averaged 50.4 percent of the popular vote in their districts, virtually the same as the President.
Political scholars voice concern at the prospect that future crucial congressional decisions like tax policy could be decided by "telephone" referendum, or mass calls to congressmen.
A Monitor canvas of the Democratic defectors' offices revealed an average of 780 phone calls or telegrams were received at the congressmen's Washington and home district offices -- ranging from 100 to almost 2,000 in the three days following the President's Monday evening TV appeal. This reflected the same level of constituent response to other Democrats, in House and Senate, who did not vote with the President.
Nor were the 48 defectors inexperienced newcomers, unfamiliar with Washington's ways. Only five were freshmen.
The voting records of the 43 incumbent Democrats show them to be "functional Republicans."
Their liberal/conservative ratings for 1980, according to the Americans for Democratic Action scores on key votes, averaged 23.9 percent. This was remarkably close to the conservative 21.4 percent ADA average of all Republican congressmen in 1980. The 1980 Democratic average was a distinctly more liberal 57.4 percent.
Only five of the 48 Democratic defectors won their districts by 55 percent or less in the last election, the standard measure for a marginal congressional seat. And two others won by 60 percent or less.
The President needed 27 Democrats to forge a majority in the House. Thus, his margin was made up of "secure" Democrats on top of his uniquely disciplined Republican bloc.
On the decisive tax votes last week, there was only one GOP defector in the House and one in the Senate.
The House Republicans voted 99.5 percent to support the President, Senate Republicans, 98.1 percent. Historically, this was unprecedented.In the House, Republicans backed President Eisenhower's position an average of 68 percent during the 1950s. Nixon's Republicans in the House voted with him at a 72.5 percent rate during his six years, and Ford averaged 65 percent GOP support in the House.
The majority of House Democrats scored 79.5 percent in unity on the tax issue last week. This was close to the 83 percent support they gave to President Kennedy and the 81 percent to President Johnson during the 1960s, when Democrats dominated Washington, and better than the 68.7 percent backing for President Carter during his first three years.
In the Senate, the Republicans' 98.1 percent unity on the tax vote last week was way ahead of the 80 percent Eisenhower got from GOP senators and Kenendy and Carter's 75 percent from Democratic senators, the next best scores.
The Senate Democrats showed less opposition courage than their House cohorts. Only one of the 10 Democratic senators who voted against the President is up for re-election in 1982 -- Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a presidential contender from the nation's most persistently Democratic state, and leader of the filibuster against Senate passage of the final tax bill.
The President's impressive tax victory reflected his ability to command the Washington scene more than it did any surge of public opinion in the President's direction, says Everett Ladd, University of Connecticut political scientist and opinion expert.
While the President's personal rating continues high, his performance rating has been slipping in recent months, not rising toward a climax or putting increasing pressure on congressmen, Mr. Ladd observes.NBC, Harris, and Gallup surveys, and others, show a similar falling off to the upper 50 percent range for Reagan, about par at best for presidents at this stage of their first term.
"The evidence doesn't show anything unusual in Reagan's ability to handle mass opinion," Ladd says. "It does show the President playing the Washington game well."
Democratic leaders concede the President's tax victory proves he likely can have his way on any major issue viewed by the public as integral to his economic program. But this is not alone due to his prowess as a communicator -- or to fears of another "Mt. St. Helens" voter telephone eruption. Rather, the public thinks that he has earned a chance to try his economic formula, they say.
After his tax victory, President Reagan said, "I want to thank Congress for responding this afternoon to the pleas of millions of taxpayers."
The Monitor's canvas of the 48 Democratic defectors showed that fewer than 40 ,000 constituents phoned or telegramed their view to the congressmen's Washington and district offices. The calls appeared to the mostly spontaneous, the congressmen said.
If such telephone pressure is irresistable, it could be easily repeated. It took one Monitor reporter less than three hours to canvas all 48 congressmen's offices, interview several congressmen, and determine the phone, telegram, and mail response. It would take 780 persons at most an afternoon to reach another 50 congressmen's offices. They need know only one telephone number -- 202-224- 3121 -- to reach any congressional office in Washington.
The long distance cost would be under $100 per caller from across the continent, much less if placed to local congressional offices. To stampede 50 congressmen by phone, the total campaign would cost under $50,000 -- a bargain compared with the $500,000 the Republicans spent on a TV- radio campaign for the bax bill, or the $7.1 billion offered by Democrats and $12 billion offered by Republicans in tax breaks to win a handful of oil state Democrats' votes.
Ironically, the greatest number of calls -- 1,994 -- reported to the Monitor came in to the offices of powerful Ohio Democrat Ronald M. Mottl, who ran unopposed in 1980."I have only a few terms left in politics," Mr. Mottl says, "Carter lost my district by 20,000 when I was winning by 80,000. Reagan won by only 35,000 votes. I have the second wealthiest district in Ohio. Of the Ways and Means [Committee] version had indexing, I would have gone with them."
The 48 included few vulnerable Democrats. Maryland's Roy Dyson narrowly won the conservative seat long held by Robert Baumann, who was beset by a personal scandal before the election. Dave Mccurdy of Okalahoma won by just 244 votes last year. Ralph Hall of Texas also narrowly made it with 53 percent of the vote, and Jack Hightower of Texas, by 55 percent.