Congress leaves for the year. Some historic bills passed, but deficit has yet to be handled

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The 99th Congress, which made its clumsy exit from Washington on Saturday, has been one of bold, even historic, accomplishments. These include the passage of tax reform, budget cuts, and environmental bills. (For story on new Superfund law, see Page 7.) The pace kept up late Friday, when the Senate passed a landmark immigration bill that would bar the hiring of illegal aliens and offer official status to millions of illegals who began continuous residence in this country before 1982.

But to hear lawmakers tell it, one might conclude that the last two years of legislative activity have been distinguished most unmistakably by failure.

``I'd give it a D minus,'' snorted Sen. William Proxmire (D) of Wisconsin. ``We failed to tackle the most pressing problem we face.''

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And what problem is that? ``The deficit, the deficit, the deficit, the deficit, the deficit, the deficit,'' sighed Sen. David Durenberger (R) of Minnesota, echoing the comments of other lawmakers.

``We cut spending but we failed to address the issue of revenues, so the real problems have been pushed off for another year,'' he said.

The sense of failure that many lawmakers expressed shortly before they departed Saturday seems all the more remarkable when one considers the progress made in chopping the federal budget deficit down to size. For fiscal year 1986, which ended midnight Sept. 30, the deficit will likely top $230 billion. For fiscal 1987, Congress whittled the deficit to about $154 billion.

For fiscal 1987, lawmakers came within $10 billion of the Gramm-Rudman target while avoiding new taxes with the help of falling interest rates, a robust economy, and a healthy dose of creative accounting.

Next year it will be tougher to meet the targets, and many of the budgetary slight-of-hand techniques used by lawmakers this year, such as one-shot asset sales to help fill federal coffers, will not be available.

Nevertheless, the 99th Congress followed up the biggest federal budget deficit in United States history with the biggest cut in the federal budget deficit in US history. ``We began the painful return to fiscal sanity,'' observed retiring House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr.

Added Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete V. Domenici (R) of New Mexico, ``Gramm-Rudman-Hollings works.'' The big question for the 100th Congress will be whether new taxes, which President Reagan flatly opposes, will be required to keep Gramm-Rudman, the budget-cutting measure, working.

A few lawmakers also moped about Congress' failure to pass a catch-all trade bill to correct the nation's trade imbalance, despite a huge trade deficit. But they were not as ready to blame themselves for this perceived shortcoming as they were President Reagan, who has opposed trade legislation of any kind.

``Basically, we were stiff-armed by the White House on the trade bill,'' explained Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, one of the Senate's leading advocates of a trade bill.

Irrespective of the nation's budgetary and trade ills, however, this Congress accomplished much, many experts say.

It leaves a distinguished record of accomplishment in environmental legislation, succeeding where other Congresses did not by passing a five-year, $9 billion renewal of the Superfund toxic-waste cleanup program. In passing Superfund it forced the President to back down on a threat to veto the bill because part of its funding comes from new taxes on business.

The 99th Congress passed the most far-reaching overhaul of the tax code in more than a generation despite the fact that, like the immigration bill, pundits had many times left it for dead. And it moved with breath-taking, election-year dispatch to pass an omnibus drug bill that included $1.7 billion for drug-abuse enforcement and education programs. The death-penalty provision of the bill was dropped.

The Congress determinedly lessened an obedience to the White House that enabled the Reagan revolution to go as far as it did. It slammed the brakes on a five-year, $1.4 trillion defense buildup, and resisted administration pressure to make drastic cuts in domestic programs.

It demonstrated increasing independence in the realm of foreign policy, causing administration officials to tear at their hair in frustration, but leading some analysts to wonder whether Ronald Reagan had become a bit of a lame duck.

After five years of White House pleading, lawmakers did accede to a request to extend $100 million in military and non-military aid to the contras fighting Nicaragua's Sandinista regime.

But Congress also demanded sanctions against South Africa and its apartheid system, forced the administration's hand in pressing Ferdinand Marcos to step down as president of the Philippines, and nearly canceled President Reagan's plan to send arms to Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps most telling of the level of congressional frustration with White House foreign policy was an attempt by House Democrats to attach five arms control provisions to a spending bill to fund most federal programs for the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

The Democrat's efforts had support even among some Republicans, who noted public opinion polls showing an increased desire for some type of arms control.

It was the surprise of the Reykjavik summit, and the prospect of being blamed for undermining the President's negotiating position with the Soviets, that prompted the House Democratic leadership to back down from its demands.

Unless some tangible progress in arms control is made by United States and Soviet negotiators at the bargaining table in the next few months, promises Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, ``we'll be back next year,'' revisiting the same arms control issues in the 100th Congress.

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