Governing: the President and Congress

ARE the institutions devised to govern the United States two centuries ago, particularly Congress and the presidency, suited to the demands of the modern world? The bicentennial of the Constitution itself prompts such questions for groups like the Committee on the Constitutional System. And the experience of recent years, including the current Iran-contra scandal, make the issue topical and urgent.

For many here and abroad our recent performance is not reassuring. Too often the US appears inconsistent, erratic, or stymied in its policy and actions.

Does the fault lie primarily in the independence of the Congress and its ability to block the President and create stalemate? Many critics think so.

Certainly the independence of Congress does make action more difficult.

But its ability to check the President can often be very useful, as the Reagan years have shown. In 1981, during the honeymoon after his sweeping victory, Congress, including the Democrats, joined in his campaign for cutting taxes and in initiating his massive military buildup. The result has been the huge budget deficits, which have harried the country for six years and contributed to the damaging trade deficits.

Since then, Congress (including many Republicans) has reasserted more independence so as to moderate or mitigate some of the President's policies. For example:

According to David Stockman, the annual budget deficit would have reached $350 billion by 1986 if the President had gotten his way entirely during the previous 5 years.

Congress imposed some constraint on the defense program and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Congress salvaged some arms control restraints and helped force the renewal of negotiations by its pressure.

Admittedly tussles between Congress and a president are not the ideal means to achieve coherent policy. But the result seems much better than the unconstrained pursuit of the President's course.

It is also probably closer to the real consensus in the country. The notion that his election constitutes a mandate for the whole program of a president is unjustified. Indeed, that was surely the meaning of the election of a Democratic majority in the House in 1980, and the shift in control of the Senate in 1986. By splitting the ticket, voters support the general direction of the President's program, while ensuring moderation in carrying it out.

The current process for nominating candidates for the presidency reinforces this tendency.

The direct primary system, which discourages many qualified people from running, also inflates the influence of the more orthodox or extreme wings of the parties in the nomination of candidates. Hence in the general election, voters are often faced with more polarized alternatives than would reflect their genuine preferences. Hence the split ticket.

Mr. Reagan could capitalize on this reality to make his last two years constructive.

Even with the Democratic control of Congress, he could almost certainly develop a bipartisan consensus for dealing with several of the key issues facing the nation. It might include:

A responsible program for resolving the budget deficit, including higher taxes.

A reshaping of the defense program for a more orderly and steady modernization, based on a coherent strategy.

A balanced arms control package for negotiation with the Soviets, covering INF weapons in Europe, offensive nuclear weapons, and SDI.

Manifestly this would require the President to shift toward a more centrist position. In particular, he would have to abandon his appeal to the popular desire to have government benefits without paying for them.

And he would have to recognize that confining the Strategic Defense Initiative to a genuine research program for 10 years is not ``killing it,'' despite such assertions from SDI proponents.

Meanwhile, for the country this bicentennial year offers the opportunity to reexamine critically the process for the selection of the president, to find ways to attract candidates better equipped for the demands of the office and more nearly reflecting the broader national consensus.

Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.

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