The system still works

The picture in Washington today is often described by observers as an impasse - one in which there is no movement of power in any direction. There is much hand-wringing over the deadlock between the White House and Congress. Neither seems to be able to work its will on the other.

This has given rise to renewed criticism from those who see this struggle as ''government by inches'' and call for a revisal of our system of government, perhaps a change to the parliamentary system.

Thus this may be a good moment to be reminded that the American system of checks and balances was set up by the founding fathers as a brake on power - and that a kind of tug of war between the executive and legislative branches, with neither having an overpowering edge, was precisely the way this system was supposed to work.

To guard against a concentration of power, and the tyranny and corruption that so easily can flow from that, the shapers of America were willing to accept a slower-moving government in exchange for these restraints.

Hence it can be argued that, if Adams and Jefferson and Franklin were here today to witness the way the President and Congress are wrestling with each other, they might shout ''hurrah.'' They would probably say something like: ''Well, it's worked pretty well over the years. And it certainly is better than the alternative, a government without these checks and balances.''

Of course, when the President is completely hogtied, the system isn't working , not even by inches. But this is not happening today. His big, 25 percent income-tax cut - a centerpiece of his approach to economic woes - remains in place. His third-year, 10 percent increment now seems safe from those in Congress who would wipe it out.

The President isn't getting all he wanted in new spending for defense. But he is getting a lot. At minimum he will get a 5 percent increase and it is more likely to come to 6 or 7 percent. No, not the 10 percent he asked for. But that was a bargaining position. Mr. Reagan knew he would have to take less. And privately he has indicated he will be content with this - though publicly he will lambaste the Democrats for pruning the defense budget.

The President has not dealt effectively with the massive budget deficit. He had expected a more buoyant economy by this time, which would have provided the revenue needed to reduce the deficit to more acceptable proportions.

Also, Mr. Reagan would like much deeper cuts in spending for social programs. But the Democrats on the Hill - and some moderate Republicans, too - won't go along.They want a much leaner defense budget.

Here lies the main battleground in the bitter, unresolved struggle between the executive and legislative branches - and the reference point for those who are so dismayed over the way government is working.

There is much evidence that government is still working. No one should forget that it was a masterwork of cooperation when the President and Congress got together on the social security compromise. Who could have predicted such an outcome?

Also, the apparent deadlock should lessen in the months ahead. The 1984 election year is coming up, and all those up for elective office are already putting their finger in the wind. Mr. Reagan is for tax cuts. What politician would want to go back to the voters advocating increased taxes? Mr. Reagan wants a stronger national defense. Who wants to be portrayed by the President as diluting his efforts to restore the US to a defense position that once again commands international respect?

There seems to be an impasse in government. But the stress should be on seems.

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