Who to watch in Washington's power politics as Reagan's ability to deliver lessens
Probably the most interesting news in the power world this week is that the important person to know in Washington is Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas. If you are, or were, a foreign government, you would of course want to continue to have a good pipeline into the White House. But you would also want one of your best diplomats in easy access to Senator Dole on Capitol Hill.
President Reagan is still largely setting the agenda in both domestic and foreign policy in Washington. His is the power of initiative and he is still using it toward the achievement of his various and well-known purposes. The debate continues to be over how much of what he wants will be granted or withheld by the Congress.
But the second Reagan term is already clearly different from the first Reagan term. The big difference is that the White House no longer commands an almost automatic majority in Congress for Mr. Reagan's purposes.
During the first Reagan term the important thing for any foreign government to know was what Reagan himself intended. Today the important thing to know is how much Dole will be able or willing to deliver of what Reagan wants. The senator is now the policeman at the main intersection of power and policy in Washington.
A subordinate clause to the above is that in some areas the Congress may even impose a policy contrary to what Reagan wants. Most initiative will probably continue to come from the White House. But there is contrary traffic and sometimes that will prevail.
The most visible example of the new order in Washington is the trimming by Congress of Reagan's 1986 military budget. It was Dole who first determined the net will of the Congress and then conveyed that will to Reagan. As a result, the arms buildup is over. The Defense Department is to be put on a ``maintenance'' basis. It is to get enough money to keep what it has going, as well as what is under construction. But there is not to be a further expansion of either the budget or the armed forces.
There are still some foreign policy areas where the Congress is content to leave policymaking to the executive branch of government. Secretary of State George Shultz had a six-hour meeting in Vienna early this week with Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister. The two went over the ground on conditions for time and place for a summit meeting of their principals, and also the possibilities for arms control.
The Shultz-Gromyko meeting was an example of an area where Mr. Shultz can move with flexibility. But this is partly because he enjoys the confidence of Congress that he will seek improved US-Soviet relations with tact and care. Congress is watching at a distance. Right now, when it comes to US-Soviet relations, it is willing ``to let George do it.''
That does not apply, however, either to the Mideast or to Central America. The Senate, which enjoys special constitutional authority in foreign affairs, has taken control of policy toward the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. It has substituted its own policy for Reagan's. The Reagan policy was aimed, despite public statements to the contrary, at the overthrow of the Sandinista regime. The Senate's policy is to apply limited pressure on the regime toward a negotiated settlement.
The Middle East is another area where Congress is now dominant. The White House and State Department would, if free to do so, try to pursue an ``even handed'' course toward the Middle East. This would mean using America's enormous economic leverage over Israel to push Israel toward peace with the Arabs by surrendering much of the Arab territories it now occupies. But Congress is moving ahead these days in providing Israel with the economic and military support it wants wthout using that support for political leverage.
Trade protectionism is another area in which the initiative is being exercised in Congress. The President is still trying to pursue a free-trade policy, but the demand for trade protectionism from the House of Representatives, in particular, is insistent and rising.
In power politics one of the important things for a statesman to know is the locus of political power in the major capitals. The Western world spends enormous amounts of time and energy trying to figure out who holds power inside the Kremlin. To know that is to be able to estimate likely policy directions.
The same rule applies to Washington. And sometimes it is almost as difficult for the outsider to identify the real locus of power there as in the Kremlin.
The actual situation in Washington today is: There is in the White House a President with strong views about defense, taxes, welfare, the Soviet Union, and Central America.
There is also an informal group in Congress consisting of the Republican leaders in the Senate and the Democratic Party leaders in the House. This informal and flexible group enjoys decisive power. A consensus within that group can impose policy or policy change on the President.
At present the inclination in that group is to feel that Reagan has gone too far with his military buildup, too far in favor of the contra rebels in Central America, and too far in his anti-Soviet posture. It also feels that he carried his opposition to welfare too far in domestic affairs.
The implications are obvious from the above. US foreign policy during the second term is bound to be less aggressive than during the first. A US military invasion of Nicaragua would have been conceivable two years ago. It is not conceivable today. The informal council on Capitol Hill would not permit it today.
Meanwhile, will there be a summit soon? Shultz is not saying. A reasonable guess is that he and Gromyko are working at a formula that will not prove politically damaging to either of their masters.