Congress gasped as President Reagan on his 40th day in office appealed over its head to the representatives of the cities and the public at large for an end of legislative "irresponsibility" that he alleges has helped bring the nation "the worst inflation in 60 years."
In the boldest speech since taking office, Mr. Reagan depicted an economic situation which has brought the public "near the breaking point," while Congress , he asserted, piled up federal spending that "has been, for some time, out of control."
His sweeping budget program is caught in the wheels of Congress now, with its fate uncertain.
Seeming to take a chance on alienating at least the Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, Reagan declared: "For a time it appeared that Congress had more solutions than the country had problems. . . . Just conceiving of a program that might help someone, somewhere, was itself reason enough to pass a law and appropriate money." Eventually, he added, with so many programs, "safeguarding public funds became an impossible task."
Backing up his argument that the country faces an emergency, the President cited eight critical economic features including the high level of inflation and the fact that the living standards of "millions of Americans" are going down.
He appealed for support from the nation's mayors here at the National League of Cities conference and recapitulated the four-point austerity program which he has sent to Congress. He said that "the plague of inflation and stagnation is brutalizing this country," and the decline in workers' earning power "will have profound impact on the spirit of our people if something is not done -- and done quickly."
What distinguished this speech from earlier presentations of his budget and tax reduction program was his recognition of problems which the program now has in the eyes of the nation and the Congress.
He recognized what many of his advisers have alleged -- that the public hails the austerity program as a whole but is inclined to question specific sacrifices that touch them. "This program now faces a political gauntlet of interest groups," Reagan said, adding that he was tempted to call them "selfish interest groups."
Reagan did not attack President Carter and the former Democratic administration, but instead centered his attention in a more nonpartisan way on the current Congress, with a Republican Senate and a Democratic House. "Government," he declared colloquially, "has continued to spend money like there is no tomorrow.
Reagan also fired a salvo at one of his favorite targets: "an avalance of federal regulation." The cost of federal overregulation has been "staggering," he charged. "An estimated $100 billion a year is added on to the cost of everything we buy just to pay for the cost of federal regulations."
President Reagan's informal style, the ease of his televised delivery, the vigor of his attack, and the surprising speed with which the sweeping budget and tax reduction programs have been brought together have produced a striking situation in Washington sometimes compared to the advent of Franklin Roosevelt.
But some question whether Reagan can keep up the pressure, and it is noted how many times Congress has weakened or destroyed ambitious White House programs. This process of congressional fragmentation is what Reagan now seems to be anticipating and attacking.
Reagan urged support from the nation's mayors, arguing that while some of their favorite federal funding might be cut, they would get greater freedom of choice in using that money. This would be achieved through decentralization and decreased federal intervention.
"This federal goliath -- unleashed and uncontrolled -- brought us to the economic brink now confronting this nation," said Reagan. "Too many officials appeared to feel totally helpless in the face of the monumental task of restoring order to the federal government's economic policies. Perhaps no one had the clout to get the job done. Whatever the reason, we now have much work to do. Together we can put our economic house in order again and regain control of this situation."