Congress in '84: independent course
When lawmakers finally adjourned late last week, they left behind a record that - given all the circumstances of a divided Congress and White House - was remarkable. Despite political and ideological differences stemming from a conservative president, a liberal Democratic House, and a Republican-led Senate whose own leadership was veering to the left of the administration, lawmakers managed to reach accommodation on a broad roster of significant legislation.
That is not to say that lawmakers should be overly generous in congratulating themselves. They departed Washington with the nation facing a string of massive budget deficits in the range of $200 billion or more. If not dealt with through a mix of tax increases and reductions in the rate of federal spending, the deficits could endanger the current recovery in 1984 or 1985 as the government's need to finance deficits drives up interest rates and crowds out private borrowing.
Much of the blame for the failure to grapple with the deficits belongs to the White House. President Reagan continues to resist tax increases. But Congress has a responsibility to act on its own. Indeed, lawmakers took an independent stance by invoking the War Powers Act regarding Lebanon; making further funds for El Salvador conditional on land reform and progress regarding human rights; refusing to appropriate money for nerve gas production; and enacting a new national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. That it did not show similar gumption on the deficit issue is unfortunate.
President Reagan, in his radio broadcast this past weekend, stressed the bipartisan nature of much of the legislation that emerged. And Congress did finally settle for accommodation. By the time the session was over last week, 10 of the 13 appropriations bills were passed. A landmark social security rescue plan was enacted. Lawmakers agreed on a new jobs bill and funding for the International Monetary Fund; raised the debt ceiling and funded the largest military appropriations bill in history, including the MX missile and B-l bomber. Congress reached agreement with the White House on a new civil rights commission.
In the social area, members rejected proposals for tuition tax credits, sought to tighten their ethical standards following sex and drug-related scandals, and turned down reenactment of the Equal Rights Amendment. Some constitutional authorities now believe a recess of years may be necessary before lawmakers and the public can deal with the ERA in a substantive way.
Will the second session of the 98th Congress, which is scheduled to begin Jan. 23, finally resolve the deficit issue? The election will make it difficult. Yet, it is absolutely vital that lawmakers act in the nation's best interest, despite election concerns, and whatever the message from the White House. Granted, there was strong unity between the White House and the Congress the first year of the Reagan presidency. That unity made action possible on the President's economic program.
The unity broke down the second year. This year, GOP senators, concerned about their reelection, went their own way. President Reagan will probably let lawmakers come to him next year so far as economic issues are concerned. This could give Congress the opening it needs to reach agreement on the deficits.