TO understand better the extraordinary events of last week in Washington and the implication of those events for the future, it is helpful to notice one particular feature: That is the importance in the affair of the Congress in general, and of the Senate in particular.
Two former members of the Senate, both highly respected on Capitol Hill, Sens. John Tower of Texas and Edmund Muskie of Maine, sat on the three-man panel that passed a judgment of incompetence on the handling of the Iran-contra affair. The end result of their report was the summary removal of White House chief of staff Donald Regan and his replacement by another longtime and greatly respected former senator, Howard Baker Jr. of Tennessee.
Nominally, the panel was selected and given its assignment by President Reagan himself. And nominally it was the President who dismissed Donald Regan and invited Howard Baker to take his place. But these moves were made in response to overwhelming pressure from Capitol Hill for an investigation, a report, and recommendations for change to be presented by people enjoying the confidence of Congress.
And when the time came for picking a new person to take over the damaged White House staff and restore it to working condition, the pressure was equally overwhelming for a person who could command the confidence of the Congress and so could hope to restore a satisfactory working relationship between Congress and the White House.
If the Iran-contra affair had happened in Britain, for example, there would have been a motion of nonconfidence in the government. That motion would have carried. The prime minister would then submit his resignation to the Queen and she would invite some other person to form a new government that could obtain the support of a majority in Parliament.
In its effect that is what has happened in Washington. A panel of people trusted by the Congress investigated, reported, and issued a verdict of nonconfidence in the existing White House staff. When President Reagan invited Howard Baker to come to the rescue, he was picking a man who can command a comfortable working majority in the Congress.
To talk about whether the Reagan administration can regain momentum and pursue a useful agenda during the next two years is to miss the central meaning of the affair. The important person in Washington today is Howard Baker. His title is chief of the White House staff, but it would be more accurate to call him the prime minister. He can reshape the Cabinet as well as the White House staff. He will tell the President what policies can command majority support in Congress. He will send to Congress those policies Congress will accept. He will reject policies Congress will not accept. He will do all this through constant consultation with the leaders on Capitol Hill.
Howard Baker wanted to run for president himself. He has given that up, at least for now. He will in fact be deputy president for the next two years, and he may make the kind of record that will earn him his party's further respect and gratitude. He will have a two-year trial run at being the real manager of the executive offices of the government.
He has real opportunities. The first is in foreign affairs. On the day after his appointment was announced, Moscow's Mikhail Gorbachev announced that he was ready to go ahead on a separate agreement to remove intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe over a five-year period.
The terms of the proposal were largely worked out last year at Reykjavik. The only thing new is that Mr. Gorbachev has said he is now willing to uncouple it from other areas of arms control and let it go forward on its own.
Here is Mr. Baker's first chance to pick up an important foreign policy project - also a chance for him to make the acquaintance of Mr. Gorbachev, and vice versa.
Americans have more than a new chief of staff at the White House. This is a new beginning for a new deputy president who is himself of presidential dimension and could someday be a full president in his own right. The next two years look much more interesting in the wake of his appointment.