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Congress's number one product this year is noise. But it took some positive steps on deficit cutting

By Peter OsterlundStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 21, 1987


In characteristically rancorous fashion, the 100th Congress has lurched toward year-end adjournment. An 11th-hour showdown with President Reagan over a massive spending bill is merely the latest of a series of skirmishes this year between the executive and legislative branches. (The budget, Page 3.)

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Partisan wrangling - whether it concerned United States policy in the Persian Gulf and Central America, or the budget and trade deficits, or Supreme Court nominations - provoked volumes of rhetoric. It prevented the President and Congress from accomplishing much together. The most contentious items on the political agenda wait to be addressed another day.

And yet, for all the acrimony and gridlock, 1987 has been far from a bust.

Perceived failures have masked a few important achievements. An agreement last month to trim the federal budget deficit by some $76 billion over two years earned a Bronx cheer from many commentators and lawmakers. Such critics considered the package a weak surrogate for what they felt could have been accomplished in the wake of the October stock market collapse.

Nevertheless, the agreement outlined a plan for the single largest swipe ever taken at the deficit. It also established a high-water mark for cooperation between a president and a Congress on deficit reduction. ``We sat down and talked,'' says Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia. ``That is a precedent to be taken seriously.''

Additionally, the contradictory political interests of the President and his opponents have, at times, been curiously served by the same events. Political reverberations of the stock market collapse forced the administration to negotiate with Congress and, ultimately, accede to the sort of tax increase that the President had vowed to oppose.

That constituted a victory for the Democrats. But the collapse also may have strengthened the President's hand in opposing Democratic efforts to stiffen US trade laws. Administration officials and many independent analysts argue that the threat of rising global protectionism was as responsible as any other single factor for the turmoil in world financial markets. As a result, the Senate next year is expected to produce a milder version of the pending trade bill than it otherwise might have.

At other times this year, congressional Democrats appear to have actually done administration officials a favor by opposing them. White House and State Department officials have been aggravated by Democratic opposition to their plans to reinterpret the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty to allow advanced ``star wars'' testing.

Administration officials now concede that that opposition gave Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a pretext to avoid confronting Reagan on the nettlesome SDI issue during the recent summit in Washington. Instead, Soviet officials settled for a vaguely worded passage in the final joint communiqu'e calling for adherence to the ABM Treaty.

This year's congressional session drew to a close in much the same way that it opened - with a veto threat from the President and agitated words from all sides. The conflict centered on a $606 billion legislative behemoth to fund all government programs during the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. President Reagan threatened to veto the bill unless Congress included a short-term continuation of aid to Nicaraguan contras.