96th Congress didn't lead -- it followed

The 96th Congress passes into history. What did it do? It normalized relations with China. It implemented the Panama Canal treaties.

At home, it ordered the oil industry to pay windfall profits taxes as price controls were relaxed. It set aside 104.3 million acres in Alaska for conservation. It created a $1.6 billion toxic waste "superfound." It established a Department of Education. Also, it voted draft registration for 18 -year-old males and deregulated trucks and airlines.

Almost as important as what it did, however, was what it didn't do. It didn't pass SALT II (the strategic arms limitation treaty with Russia). It didn't pass welfare reform, a revision of the criminal code, or national health insurance. It passed almost no new social reform legislation. And it didn't balance the budget.

And the 96th Congress saw four members convicted in the Abscam trials, with two cases pending. Another House member was disciplined and resigned.

The 96th hasn't been one of the great congresses of history, although it kept government wheels running in difficult times. In general, it followed events rather than guided them. The voters cast their own verdict when they put a Republican in the White House, gave the Senate a Republican majority for the first time in 26 years, and diluted the Democratic majority in the House.

The 96th Congress ended in anticlimax. It arranged for a lame-duck session and, when it tried to polish off remaining legislation, fell into filibusters and stalemate. It lingered on after the hoped-for Dec 5 adjournment date.

Final hours of the departing Congress dealt with a makeshift funding bill designed to keep several government agencies from running out of money at midnight. Such "must" bills offer an opportunity for riders that benefit special interest groups: dubbed a "Christmas tree," at one time the funding bill had 148 mostly irrelevant special baubles hung on it.

In a test outgoing President Carter, the Democratic Congress yielded to his veto of an appropriation bill that carried a rider making it more difficult for the Justice Department to enforce busing laws. Now the matter is up to President Reagan.

Congress also retreated from granting itself a 17 percent salary increase that was supported in committees and on a House floor vote without a roll call, but was rejected when votes were demanded of individual members on the record. Some said that Mr. Reagan wanted a general pay hike so that 34,000 subcabinet officials and judges whose salaries are tied to congressional pay could get raises. Upper-level federal employees would have risen from $52,600 to $58,500, and congressmen from $60,662 to $70,900. It must wait for next year.

These matters were minor compared with other actions of the 96th. Most significant were in foreign affairs.

The House agreed in 1979 to implement the Panama treaties passed by the Senate in 1978, when the canal was turned over to Panama.

In March last year Congress took steps necessary to normalize relations with Communist China: The Senate defeated an attempt to retain the mutual defense treaty with Taiwan and the House went along in downgrading US-Taiwan relations. GOP conservatives and Reagan appeared to oppose both the Panama and China actions.

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