The Washington flying machine

AFTER one of the dullest elections in history Washington is settling down to the more exciting question of who's going to run things. Under the separation of powers an election is likely to produce a stalemate instead of the clarification that comes after a parliamentary election.

This process may be starting: We can't tell yet. It comes at an extraordinarily sensitive time in world affairs. The nations are heavily in debt. The Western world looks to the United States, which has been living beyond its means. Now the question boils down to how the newly reelected President and the divided legislature can meet the challenge.

Walter Mondale spoke the most challenging words of the recent campaign in his San Francisco speech when he asserted that whoever won in November, ''the budget will be squeezed,'' and he added, ''Taxes will go up. And anyone who says they won't is not telling the truth to the American people.'' There was an arresting brutality to Mr. Mondale's challenge, I thought, as he continued, ''Let's tell the truth. It must be done; it must be done. Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did.''

Was he right? I suspect he was, and we are all considering it now in Washington though Mondale's gloomy assessment may well have cost him the election.

One must look at the problems facing Mr. Reagan with a sympathetic shudder.

The experts are bringing in their new estimates. They say there's a slight business slow-down. The Federal Reserve Board jiggles the discount rate to ward off trouble. The Treasury deficit, it is guessed, may be $200 billion or more. Lobbies brace themselves against federal counter-action. Some domestic banks are in trouble, says Time magazine. ''Bankers now face their most strenuous survival test since the Great Depression.'' Foreign banks and governments owe US banks about $350 billion. We will be fortunate if somebody doesn't default.

And through all this Mr. Reagan must try to find a trail to safety. He returns to Washington with an air that is intended to be reassuring - and we all hold our breaths.

I have been expressing my astonishment at the way things are run in Washington since I was a boy. Things continue much as before and the country manages to make itself the richest on earth. Foreigners come and look us over; I have seen London reporters come to the United States to write thoughtful interpretive articles. Often they chat with me at a certain phase of their experience and express wonderment. I am the wrong man to talk to. I don't know what keeps the 200-year-old Founding Fathers-Orville Wright flying machine up in the air.

There is a new analysis in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly by Gregg Easterbrook called ''What's Wrong With Congress?'' He cites familiar points: ''Only once in the past six years has Congress finished the budget appropriations before the beginning of the fiscal year. . . .'' The author notes changes over 15 years and says, ''Every change has in some respect caused Congress to become more difficult to run. Right now there isn't anyone in charge , and there never may be again.''

Well, so what? I have been writing that for years: Ultimately though, it produces the ''Washington mood.'' This is expressed in the thought that elections are held in the US to see if the opinion polls are correct.

Things get bigger too. In 1964, 1,649 journalists were accredited to cover Congress; today it is 3,748. On a single day this fall Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill received 5 million pieces of mail. The proliferation of PACs (political action committees) has opened a brand new channel for lobbying.

In recent years several governors have been urged to run for Congress but have declined. This wouldn't have happened a few years ago, but legislature prestige has declined. Congress gets tied up in stalemates and can't meet deadlines. Mr. Easterbrook is sour. ''Before Congress can lead the nation it must be able to lead itself,'' he says.

Ho Hum.

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