The Democratic Congress, lame ducks and all, returns to Washington Nov. 12 to act on controversial money bills, including foreign aid spending measures totaling more than $20 billion.
But in every action it takes, the outgoing Congress will be aware of this week's Republican conservative landslide. It will also note, on the negative side, that only about 51-53 percent of those eligible to vote went to the polls -- a decline in turnout for the fifth straight election.
As it deals with controversial money bills which were postponed consciously, in some cases, to save congressmen the embarrassment of taking positions till after the election, the lame-duck Congress will observe the large reservoir of uncertain nonvoters -- a phenomenon unique among modern democracies. The stay-at-homes, almost 50 percent of eligible voters in this and the past several presidential elections, are an enigma in the democratic process.
Two controversial foreign aid bills were deliberately delayed until after the election -- the annual $7 billion appropriation and an authorization for $3.6 billion for international development banks. An additional $15 billion to $20 billion of foreign aid will come up after the new 97th Congress takes over in early January. The two major recipients are Israel, with $2 billion (half for arms), and Egypt, which receives another $1.5 billion.
Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, as former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, vigorously supports foreign aid. On the other hand, some conservative groups use votes on foreign aid appropriations in rating "big spenders" in Congress. Foreign aid has always been unpopular in Congress, but is urged by presidents for international reasons.
So all eyes now inevitably turn to President-elect Reagan in what may turn out to be the first test of his economic- international policy. Mr. Reagan argues that he can pay for tax cuts and bigger armaments by reducing budget expenditures in other fields.
The lame-duck session may also decide whether the new congressional budget controls survive.
Congress a few years ago instituted spending discipline by setting ceilings and fund allocations among 19 functional categories. The discipline is hard to enforce. The question now is whether Congress will heed its own budget ceilings or drop the system. Senator Muskie fought for the system till he switched to the State Department.
Meanwhile, every political writer in Washington is trying to interpret the Reagan landslide which left a Republican Senate and a Democratic House. Was it a historic turning point? If so, why didn't the "other half" vote?
The following shows the turnout for 20 years: 1960 64 percent Kennedy vs. Nixon 1964 61.7 Johnson vs. Goldwater 1968 60.7 Nixon vs. Humphrey 1972 55.4 Nixon vs. McGovern 1976 54.4 Carter vs. Ford 1980 51-53 Reagan vs. Carter
The steady decline leaves disturbing questions for America, compared with the 70 to 90 percent voting record of other democracies.