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Is inaction enough?

February 2, 1984



Do Congress and the White House really want a do-nothing year in '84? Is save-your-seat, incumbent politics all the public can expect this session? Will no one lead?

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There are three big issues in Washington right now - the budget deficit, the Marines in Lebanon, and Central America policy. The prognosis is that, unless events interfere or some of the Washington actors rouse themselves, not much will happen on any of the fronts.

First Lebanon: The House will likely pass its resolution within two or three weeks, calling for ''prompt and orderly withdrawal'' of the Marines without directly challenging the President or reneging on its prior 18-month lease for Marine deployment. This in effect puts off any confrontation between Congress and the White House until after the fall election.

Central America: Despite the Kissinger commission's proposal for some $8 billion in aid, Congress will likely continue the current modest levels of military and economic assistance. Surveys show the American public isn't interested in assistance to the region in any form - troops, guns, or butter. They're not that moved by allusions to a communist threat. Absent public stirring, Congress isn't expected to show much initiative or resolve its own policy conflicts.

And the deficit: At least here Americans are dealing with their own turf, their own economy and needs. But the early readings are that Congress like the White House is wary of touching it. The House budget committee will try to pass a budget resolution that would restore perhaps $4 billion or $5 billion of domestic spending cuts asked by the President. They might shave 4 or 5 points off Reagan defense spending plans. But there will not likely be much in the way of revenue hikes.

House Ways and Means Committee chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Illinois, who has oversight over tax action, apparently has no great interest in the deficit. He'll try to get his $8 billion in tax reforms passed, but without encumbering the legislation with revenue increases. The House may hold hearings on the Bradley-Gebhart tax reform bill.

Given the deficit issue - after all, the flow of federal red ink widening from $184 billion this year to over $300 billion later this decade - taxes should be the big ball game in town. But chairman Rostenkowski appears content to wait until 1985 and take up whatever legislation is put before him. This means the initiative would have to come from the White House or the Senate.

Election year politics partly explains Congress's inertia, but not all of it.

Despite what they say about the evils of deficits and the virtue of balanced budgets, many in Congress apparently go along with their constituents' indifference. As one congressman told us after visiting his district last weekend: ''Even among the constituents who are concerned about deficits, it simply never occurs to them to raise taxes. They think only of cutting spending. They've been conditioned to think taxes are bad.''

If President Reagan would send a signal that he would accept, not just consider, a tax bill, the Democrats could help rally the 218 or so votes he would need. But lacking that, there just aren't the votes on either side of the aisle to attack the deficit this session. In the House, a Republican troublemaking squad has been trying to test the Democratic leadership's patience. And beyond that, the House GOP has pretty much reverted to the near-total unity behind President Reagan it showed his first year. Maybe a dozen Republicans, and a hundred Democrats, might choose to go it alone on a deficit crusade - a meaningless venture in a 435-seat chamber.

The situation's not much different in the Senate, where Finance Committee chairman Robert Dole ruefully observes that Congress might as well go home after it passes an appropriations bill this session.

House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill's endorsement of Walter Mondale yesterday could make it even more difficult for the House leadership to work out a ''down payment'' deficit-reduction package with the President this session. Mondale has his own deficit approach which, he says, would cut the deficit in half by 1988.

What this adds up to is a status quo year in 1984. Congress is apparently going along with the White House's calculated risk that the economy will stay together into 1985.

Will someone please stand up and lead?