Bridging the President-Congress gap
Washington — A move is afoot to build a bridge of cooperation between Congress and the next president of the United States, whoever he may be, to tackle the great economic challenges that lie ahead.
Underlying the effort is concern among key congressional leaders that the new chief executive, whether Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, has a lot to learn about working with Congress -- and perhaps vice versa.
To this end, the powerful Joint Economic Committee (JEC) is planning for Dec. 10 an extraordinary Washington get-together of business, labor, minority, consumer, and government leaders, including, if possible, representatives of both the winning and losing presidential candidates.
From this session, congressional leaders hope, a clearer idea will emerge of how broad a consensus exists among Americans and their officials on how to grapple with inflation, unemployment, and related issues.
Right up to the present, Congress, and the Carter White House have feuded on economics, most recently over whether or not to schedule a tax cut now or wait until next year.
The Senate Finance Committee, led by influential Sen. Russell B. Long (D) of Louisiana, wanted to push a $39 billion tax cut through Congress this fall, prior to the Nov. 4 election.
The White House rolled out its biggest guns to thwart the tax cut drive, arguing that a premature cut would greatly boost budget deficits and add to inflation.
"We won a tremendous victory," US Treasurey Secretary G. William Miller told reporters at breakfast Oct. 21, "when the Senate Finance Committee measure was not even debated by the [full] Senate."
A congressional source sees it another way: "Miller," he said, "was absolutely livid [with Senate Democrats] for even considering a tax cut that the White House thought was dangerous."
This tussle illustrates two things:
* The White House and Congress have failed to see eye to eye on many issues, even when the same party controlled both.
Ronald Reagan's election, said a congressional source, might worsen the situation, because he -- like Mr. Carter four years ago -- lacks Washington experience and is, to boot, of the "other" party.
* Even within Congress, party leaders are losing control over younger members , who often tend to put personal convictions ahead of party loyalty. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., among others, deplores this decline of discipline.
Yet, in the view of the outgoing JEC chairman, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D) of Texas, the urgency of economic and energy problems demands the utmost cooperation of all concerned.
Thus the Dec. 10 session on Capitol Hill will include a wide spectrum of opinion. Keynote speakers, as now foreseen, will be AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland; W. M. Batten, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange; and former Texas Rep. Barbara C. Jordan.
Then the conference will break into seminars covering inflation, unemployment , productivity, energy, and international economics.
Already, said a key congressional economist, a "broad-based consensus" exists that business should be given larger than usual tax preferences in whatever tax cut bill emerges next year, to spur modernization of the economy.
"We need in the 1980s," says Secretary Miller, "an unprecedented level of investment to modernize industry and improve productivity, to shift from an emphasis on consumption to production."
Tax proposals roughed in by the Carter White House and by Ronald Reagan, as well as the 1980 Midyear Report of the JEC, stress the need for incentives to business.
"Our report to Congress," Senator Bentsen said, "recommends policies to encourage investment in the new plant and equipment necessary for sustained growth that can raise the standard of living for all Americans."
But sharp differencies remain over how much relief to give to individual taxpayers and in what ways. The question is urgent, because a howl from taxpayers may go up when the impact of next year's hefty social security tax bite sinks in.
More money will be deducted from the pay packets of all workers, because both the payroll tax rate and the amount of income subject to social security taxes will rise Jan. 1, 1981.
This fact, plus "bracket creep" -- the effect of inflation pushing families into higher income tax brackets -- will boost next year's tax bill for most Americans, unless some relief is decreed.
Meanwhile, a brisk fight shapes up over the fiscal 1981 budget, when the lame-duck session of Congress convenes Nov. 12.
This is the budget that Carter and Congress had hoped to balance. Outlays required by law to offset economic recession -- chiefly unemployment compensation -- plus sharply higher fuel costs for the federal government, now have plunged the prospective 1981 budget more than $30 billion into the red.