Reagan fights congressional efforts to clip his wings. Officials accuse lawmakers of `micromanaging'
Washington — White House strategists are on the warpath against the alleged erosion of presidential power by the United States Congress. Determined efforts will be made this year to halt what is perceived as a congressional assault on presidential prerogatives, administration officials say.
``A lot of issues now involve prerogative battles,'' a White House aide says. ``Since November '86 the pendulum has swung to the Congress. Some of that has swung back, but this President shouldn't be counted, out and he will fight.''
This is not a matter of differences of views over the substance of policy, but of procedural and legal constraints that Congress seeks to impose on presidential authority. Administration officials cite these areas of concern:
The Senate in February will take up legislation requiring the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of any covert operation.
The pending trade bill includes provisions that would limit presidential authority in determining when to apply trade sanctions.
A Senate subcommittee has set up a study group to consider ways to strengthen the War Powers Resolution, requiring a president to notify Congress within 48 hours whenever he sends US troops into a foreign country.
Foreign aid legislation has increasingly reduced the president's ability to reallocate funds on the basis of perceived national interest.
Administration officials do not deny that the Iran-contra scandal has played a role in fostering distrust between the branches, inducing Congress to tighten oversight of the executive. President Reagan's lame-duck status also invites greater congressional assertiveness.
But the largest factor, say Reagan aides, is the fact that Congress is controlled by the Democrats and is itself a chaotic institution.
``The executive branch is a victim of a lot of micromanaging,'' a White House aide says. ``If there was strong leadership there, Congress and the executive could do a lot, but there's anarchy there.''
Critics reject the charge that the system has somehow broken down and that Congress is placing too many constraints on the executive. ``Much of the moaning about Congress mucking around in foreign policy is post-facto rationalization for Iran-contra,'' says Norman Ornstein, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.
``The problem is not structural but the fact that there is no consensus on priorities. That's as much the fault of the President, who has gone to give-and-take only reluctantly,'' Mr. Ornstein says.
The major problem, political observers agree, is the breakdown in trust between the two branches.``Irangate'' arose, for instance, because the administration mistrusted the system for monitoring covert operations and refused to tell Congress about its secret dealings with Iran. In the wake of that experience, many lawmakers, including Republicans, want to strengthen the law.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will report out a bill this week requiring the president to inform the top four leaders of Congress of all covert operations conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency or other agencies within 48 hours.
One reason for stalemate lies in the overriding focus on the budget process, a drawn-out exercise that Mr. Reagan castigated in his State of the Union message. Other issues simply get swept aside in the annual battle to pass funding bills.
The President has again proposed two structural reforms - a balanced-budget amendment and the line-item veto - as a way to solve the problem.
But there is virtually no likelihood that Congress would adopt the item veto, which, in its eyes, would cede too much power to the chief executive. Nor would it approve a balanced-budget amendment, which would straitjacket both branches.
Another area of contention is arms control. Last year Congress sought to add to the defense spending bills a number of inhibiting amendments on such issues as the SALT II Treaty, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the Antiballistic Missile Treaty.
As the superpower summit approached, the President and Congress struck a compromise on the amendments.
But with the treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) now facing a ratification battle, the administration worries not only about ``killer amendments'' but also about congressional demands to see the INF negotiating record. ``We may let them see something, but they should not have it as a matter of right,'' a White House official says. ``George Washington decided not to give up negotiating records, so ... it has to be clear this is a presidential prerogative.''
Interest in the War Powers Resolution has subsided. But White House aides are concerned the issue could be reopened if tensions in the Gulf flare up again.
Ever since the resolution was adopted in 1973, in the wake of the Vietnam war, presidents have criticized it as an unconstitutional preemption of power.
The trade bill is also annoying the White House. In the past, administration officials say, a president had discretion in the matter of retaliating against foreign countries for protectionist trade practices. He could weigh US sanctions against security and political interests.
Now, officials charge, Congress seeks to deplete the authority of the president through ``automaticity,'' i.e., mandating retaliation whether the executive wishes it or not.