Reversal of power
PERHAPS it is the force of the President's personality, but it does appear that power is shifting back from Congress to the executive branch. Stuart Eizenstat, President Carter's chief domestic affairs adviser, contends that this reversal in flow of power is occurring. He should know. He had to function in a Carter administration where, as a reaction to Watergate and Vietnam, the legislative branch had clipped the President's wings.Skip to next paragraph
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Ronald Reagan has that unassuming way about him that enables him to push people out of his path without looking assertive. Indeed, with a smile and that very reasonable style of talking to those with whom he is dealing, Mr. Reagan has been able to impose his ideological thrust on Congress.
But -- as Mr. Eizenstat points out in a recent thoughtful column -- Reagan has had some help in this regaining of presidential influence. Congress itself has opened the door to this successful reassertion of presidential initiative by failing to put its own budget house in order.
Furthermore, Eizenstat is particularly on target when he emphasizes the new climate of public opinion in the United States -- of which members of Congress, Democrats as well as Republicans, are acutely aware -- which pretty much endorses Reagan's policy thesis.
Thus, Congress has bowed to Reagan initiatives in large part because it realizes that voters want to measure spending reductions against the perpetuation of social programs.
This call shifting priorities in Washington was the voters' message when they elected Reagan the first time -- although many observers at the time said his victory turned mostly on dissatisfaction with Jimmy Carter. But Reagan's ability to work his will on Congress -- with his major tax cut and some reductions in spending at the expense of social programs -- showed clearly that the nation's lawmakers were attuned to the mood in America.
This voter message was still there -- perhaps even more forcefully and urgently dispatched -- when the electorate gave its overwhelming support to reelecting Mr. Reagan.
Obviously, Walter Mondale had misread the voters' desires when he forthrightly -- and, history will perhaps say, courageously -- advocated more taxes to deal effectively with the immense budget deficit.
Actually, Mr. Mondale sensed the public's conservative trend and was taking the political gamble that the voters would view his tax-increase proposal as one in which he was really ``out-conservativising'' Reagan. That is, he thought the voters would perceive his call for new taxes as a responsible way to deal with the deficit and would hail it as a tried-and-true conservative approach.
But he was wrong. These days, conservatives have, it would seem, bought the concept that tax cuts will invigorate the economy sufficiently to provide the revenue to deal effectively with the budget deficit.
They may not really believe this will happen -- and they certainly see little evidence that it is happening now. But they aren't willing to accept sacrifices, in terms of taxes, in order to get rid of the deficit. In a way, Mondale was saying, ``Let's deal with the economy the old-fashioned way.'' But this approach didn't go over with the voters.
The heightened influence of the presidency can be clearly seen of late in the willingness of Congress to impose mandatory restrictions on its spending -- including the delegation of final spending-trimming responsibilities to the president if they themselves don't get the job done -- to balance the budget over the next few years.
In addition, while dragging its feet most visibly, Congress is carrying forward the President's tax-reform initiative -- with the help coming, at this point, more from the Democrats than the Republicans. It took a still-influential and popular President to turn House Republicans around and get them behind a piece of legislation most of them disliked.
If Mr. Carter had been reelected, he would have become a lame-duck president quite quickly -- simply because he was already a chief executive who had been unable to reverse the power ascendancy of Congress.
Some observers are now saying that Reagan's retention of influence stems from his strong showing at the recent summit. Actually, it was Reagan's elevated position in governing this nation -- readily perceived and respected by the Soviet leaders -- that made Reagan's success at the summit possible. No lame duck he.
Will this flow of power back to the presidency extend beyond the Reagan years? There is no certainty of this. Yet the widespread perception continues these days that Reagan is in charge and is making government work.
Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.