The uses of bipartisanship

Have you happened to notice that the issue of social security (what kind and how much) has disappeared from the US public forum? I cannot offhand think of any similarly controversial subject which has so completely slipped out of sight in such a short time.

The government in Washington can work, and can legislate on highly sensitive subjects - when it is willing to put partisanship aside and forgo political advantage. Social security is a current case in point.

A year ago everyone knew that the social security system in the United States was in deepest trouble and would have to be reformed. But rival politicians were busy beating the drums for rival and conflicting ways and means of achieving reform. Democrats and Republicans were eagerly seeking partisan advantage on the issue. And then what happened?

Late in 1982 the President and Democratic leaders in Congress came to realize that the subject was much too serious for politics. Besides, the possible damage from failure to find a formula for reform could outweigh any short-term possible political advantage. The realization of the urgency and the danger of failure produced what amounted to a political truce negotiated between President Reagan and Speaker of the House of Representatives Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill.

Out of the Reagan-O'Neill truce came Reagan-O'Neill collaboration in setting up a bipartisan ''National Commission on Social Security.'' It went to work and, on Jan. 15, came up with a formula for the reform and the funding of the system which has since gone through the Congress virtually unchanged. It is now the new law of the land. It took from Jan. 15 when the commission published its findings to March 9 for the House to accept the formula. Once that hurdle had been taken the rest was easy. By March 25 Senate and House had reached agreement and the bill was in the President's hands. He is scheduled to sign it tomorrow.

For a major piece of legislation touching directly or indirectly nearly the entire population of the US that was the speed of lightning. Legislation of that importance cannot normally expect to go from introduction to completion in three months. It was a near legislative miracle.

It worked so well that when the President found himself in deep political water over the highly controversial MX missile he agreed to set up another national commission. And that, too, has worked, up to this point.

The report only came out last week.The congressional process lies ahead. But there is now in existence a compromise plan for providing the US with a series of steps to maintain a respectable nuclear deterrent and go to the table with the Soviets with sufficient bargaining chips in hand.

There will have to be swallowing of past positions by both Republicans and Democrats. President Reagan will have to recognize that the ''window of vulnerability'' is not as dangerous as he has been accustomed to say until recently. The Democrats will have to recognize that there is some danger, and that it would probably be unwise to do without the MX entirely.

If the compromise is to work as in the case of social security the Democrats will have to spend more money on missiles than they would like and Mr. Reagan will have to get along with fewer of the MX missiles and the fewer to be placed in existing Minuteman silos. Not long ago he was holding out for more than 100, and to be placed in a ''dense pack'' system.

But the compromise has the blessing of top weapons experts from Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations. It is less than the Pentagon would like, but more than it seemed likely to get until the compromise formula was worked out.

But since the formula was worked out by a bipartisan commission there will be little or no political advantage to be extracted from it.

Administration policy toward Latin America is now in about as much trouble as the MX was a couple of months ago and as social security was a year ago. There is a lively row in Congress over whether the US ought to be trying to drag down the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, which the US was itself in part responsible for bringing into existence (by withdrawing support from the previous Somo-za regime).

The situation has reached the point where the administration is knee-deep in a ''destabilization'' campaign in Nicaragua which Congress may very well repudiate. The worst possible outcome would be just that - to start out on something like this and have it spoiled halfway through. Mr. Reagan, I submit, needs another national commission to depoli-ticize US policy toward Latin America.

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