Congress grabs tough issues, runs to recess

After moving sluggishly all spring, the nation's lawmakers finished the early summer with a legislative sprint. As they departed for the July 4th recess and Democratic National Convention, they left behind a record to surprise scoffers who said Congress would duck the tough issues this election year.

The legislators took their first action to trim the gargantuan federal budget deficit, completing a three-year package of $50 billion in taxes and $13 billion in spending cuts, mostly from medicare.

''I think we've done some pretty good work'' on reducing the deficit, says Rep. Barber B. Conable Jr. of New York. But the ranking Republican on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee also concedes that ''raising $50 billion in taxes over three years when the potential deficit is $600 billion'' is no cure-all.

''We deal in a lot of symbolism here,'' says Representative Conable. The so-called ''down payment'' on reducing the federal deficit is important largely because ''if we had not, the negative reaction would have been disastrous,'' says the New Yorker, one of the most respected fiscal experts in Congress.

House Budget Committee chairman James R. Jones (D) of Oklahoma says, ''In January they said nothing would be done'' on deficits. But he holds that Congress acted because of ''a growing tension around the country in late winter, early spring that was triggered by a rise in home mortgage interest rates.''

That message was ''played back to members'' during their visits home, says the Oklahoman.

Congress also performed a major election-year feat by completing preliminary action on the first sweeping immigration reform in over 30 years. Probably the most emotional issue to come before the lawmakers this year, the immigration bill, had been viewed as a political mine field. House Democrats, in particular, feared offending an array of groups, ranging from Hispanics (who constitute most of the illegal aliens in the US) to farmers who would be penalized for hiring illegals.

But House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts had promised to give the bill a hearing, election year or no. And when the bill finally came to the floor in June, the opposition proved more amplified than powerful.

In other issues, Congress finalized a bill pressuring states to raise the miniumum age for buying alcoholic beverages to 21 or else face a loss of federal highway money. And it finally wrapped up a two-year struggle to restructure the nation's bankruptcy courts.

But the lawmakers have not lost sight of the election-year calendar, even as they chalked up last-minute accomplishments.

The tax bill, for example, generally avoids taxing the public directly.

''You don't raise a significant amount of money without taxing the general public,'' says Representative Conable. ''This is peripheral taxation.''

The tax bill also includes a political prize for Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina: It fails to renew an 8-cent tax on cigarette packs which expires in 1985. Two years ago, Senator Helms went along with the tobacco tax increase, which landed him in the smoke house in his tobacco-growing state. The new bill could help his reelection bid.

Moreover, while Congress demonstrated its concern about federal red ink with the hand that passed the tax bill, its other hand was dipping into the pork barrel. Just before leaving town, the House passed a bill authorizing 300 federally-built projects, ranging from dams and canals to water supply and recreational facilities costing up to $18 billion.

Not only did the House turn down proposals to require more local funding for these projects, but the House Public Works and Transportation Committee blatantly used pressure tactics to win aproval of the omnibus legislation.

During consideraton, the committee distributed a list of House members who voted to halt the Cross Florida Barge Canal, a controversial project begun in 1942. On the list were little black dots beside the name of each member whose district has a project in the bill. It was a clear warning that to get a project for one's own district, a member should vote for others' projects.

Members complained bitterly about the tactic on the House floor, but the bill passed overwhelmingly. It must still go to the Senate, which is expected to require more local participation and a smaller federal share in the water projects.

When Congress reconvenes later this month, it will have only three weeks between the national party conventions and then about one month to complete its work for the year. Among the issues still pending in Congress:

- A dispute about how much to increase defense spending, with the Democratic House pushing for a 5 percent after-inflation rise and the White House insisting on 8 percent.

- Reconciling different versions of an immigration bill.

- Making a final decision on how many MX missiles it will pay for and how much antisatellite weaponry it will approve.

Congress will also return to passing more deficit-reduction legislation, which is estimated to trim $140 billion to $180 billion over the next three years.

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