Congress leaves memorable record despite clumsy exit

The 97th Congress exited clumsily. While filibusters and all-night sessions rambled on, much of US government teetered on the edge of a shutdown awaiting an emergency spending bill.

The veneer of civility wore thin, and tempers flared in private and even on the Senate floor during the last hours of the session. As the House finished up business and rushed home for Christmas, the upper chamber was held captive two more days because of one senator's stand against the nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax.

But despite its chaotic finale, the legislature that Americans elected in the 1980 Reagan landslide is leaving behind an important record. With a few sweeping acts during its first months, the 97th Congress reordered the nation's priorities. And even the back peddling afterwards, the impressive Democratic victories at the polls last month, and the disarray of a lame-duck session have not blotted out that new order.

Rejecting what many scorned as the ''tax, tax, spend, spend'' policies of the past, Congress voted the highest across-the-board cut in personal income taxes ever and a dramatic halt in domestic spending, while approving record funding to build up the armed forces.

''It's clearly going to go down as a significant Congress,'' says Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar with the American Enterprise Institute. ''This is a Congress that passed fewer bills than any in recent memory,'' he points out. But the bills it passed were far-reaching, especially the budget ''reconciliation'' measures passed early in the session to cut domestic spending.

The nation under President Carter had already been moving tentatively to shrink agency spending and beef up defense. But the Reagan administration quickly joined forces with Congress and acted with breathtaking speed.

''It was one of those rare moments when pressure from the President and the mood of the country forced (Congress) to throw away any normal wariness'' and vote for change, says Mr. Ornstein.

Those Democrats who did not join the Reagan parade stepped aside to let it pass by. As House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. reminded reporters this week, ''I've never frustrated the will of the President'' by using procedural moves to block his programs. The Democratic House gave Mr. Reagan ''victory after victory,'' said the Speaker.

The white-haired Massachusetts lawmaker, who emerged as the Democrats' top official and the President's chief ideological sparring partner during the past two years, added, ''We had our victories in the fourth quarter, which was the elections.''

Republican certainty and optimism of the first year of the 97th Congress had all but vanished by the end. The GOP members had stood loyally by the President and installed his program. But instead of the prosperity they had expected, they saw the worst recession since the 1930s. Instead of realizing their hopes of capturing the House, Republicans lost 26 seats during the midterm elections.

And for all their painful efforts to cut spending, the federal deficit rose to historic levels of $110 billion, in part because of tax cuts Congress voted, and in part because of unemployment costs and high interest on the national debt.

In the roller coaster of the 97th Congress, the House Republican leader, Rep. Robert H. Michel of Illinois, has seen both the top and bottom. In an interview just before the House adjourned, he noted that Republicans during the past two years have been able to ''turn the country around'' on spending and taxes.

''We were able to at least get started,'' said the minority leader, who got a first taste of controlling a majority during this Congress by forging a coalition of Republicans and Democratic conservatives. But no sooner had his working majority passed the Reagan packages of 1981, than members grew concerned they had gone too far, especially on tax cuts.

''I think the first time we were overly generous,'' said Mr. Michel, who backed the 1982 tax ''reform'' bill, which closed business loopholes and tightened enforcement to raise $98 billion in revenues.

When Congress had completed the major planks of the Reagan program and the economy failed to come around, it was a ''disappointment,'' said Michel. He blamed the Federal Reserve Board's tight money policy for keeping interest rates too high.

''Maybe expectations were exaggerated,'' he said of Reaganomics, raising hopes that cutting taxes and spending ''was the only thing that we needed.''

When the economy failed to take off as promised, he said, it ''culminated in our loss at the polls.'' Even the 13-term Republican leader, who had almost never had a tough race, came close to losing his seat to a political newcomer. His Peoria, Ill., district has been hard hit by unemployment.

''This doesn't mean that the overall thrust (of the Reagan program) is not still a good principle. It is,'' he said. But the longtime foe of ''make-work'' federal jobs programs added a warning: ''By this spring, (the economy) has really got to start to move. . . . You can't be content with having 11 percent unemployment. Something has to happen.''

While the 97th Congress focused on budget and economic matters, it dealt with a variety of other concerns as well:

* The ''social agenda.'' Despite the victories of the emerging New Right in the 1980 elections, this group failed to attain any of its major goals. A proposed ban on busing for school desegregation passed the Senate but died in the House, and despite weeks of tying up the Senate, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina lost his bid for restricting abortion rights.

Even the more popular proposals for voluntary prayer in schools made no headway.Tax credits for private school tuitions, aimed at aiding religious schools, also failed.

* Minority rights. Despite the conservative cast of the 97th Congress, it enacted the strongest Voting Rights Act ever passed. The law protects minority access to the polls.

* Environment. Business interests had high hopes of revising the Clean Air Act to streamline regulations, but environmentalists feared a weakening of the law. So no changes were made in the law, which will await a rewrite in a new Congress that leans more toward ecologists.

* Foreign affairs. As is customary, Congress allowed the President to lead the way in dealings with other nations. But the legislature moved to temper the executive, especially in the case of Central America, where lawmakers feared a new Vietnam was in the making.

* Pork barrels. Despite the austerity drive, nonessential public works projects, such as the Clinch River atomic breeder reactor plant in Tennessee and the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway in Mississippi and Alabama, as well as water projects in West Virginia and North Dakota, all survived. Trends in federal budget priorities Fiscal year 1977 1981 1982 1983 1984 Budget categories (As a % of total budget) National defense 24.3% 24.3% 25.7% 29.1% 31.4% Human resources (includes social security, welfare, health programs, education, training, and veterans benefits) 53.3 52.6 51.3 50.7 49.6 Net interest on the national debt 7.5 10.5 11.4 12.5 12.4 All other 14.9 12.7 11.6 7.8 6.8 Figures for 1977 and 1980 are actual spending levels. Figures for 1982 are preliminary and for 1983 and 1984 are estimates. Because of rounding, they do not add up to 100 percent. Source: Office of Management and Budget

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