IN the growing confrontation between the Reagan administration and Congress over United States foreign policy, both sides have lost sight of the distinction between making and conducting policy. This distinction sometimes gets a little blurry, but it's there for anybody who is looking for it. So far as the administration is concerned, the problem is an exaggerated notion of presidential prerogatives and an obsessive determination to defend them. Almost everybody agrees that the only sensible way to implement, or conduct, a policy is to leave it to the executive branch. A policy is made when it is decided to send the Navy to the Persian Gulf; it is carried out when the Navy is told what to do when it gets there. This distinction is lost on President Reagan. He thinks the War Powers Resolution infringes his prerogatives and therefore he refuses to pay any attention to it, notwithstanding the fact that, like it or not, it is the law. For the same reason he refused to pay any attention to the Boland amendment prohibiting aid to the Nicaraguan contras, notwithstanding the fact that it, too, was the law.
So far as Congress is concerned, the problem is an inability to resist the temptation to drift from making policy to micromanagement of its day-to-day conduct. Congress is good at making policy; it has neither the talent nor the capability for managing policy.
The congressional tendency to overreach itself antedates the Reagan administration, but it has increased during the Reagan years. This is one of the doubtless unintended consequences of the Reagan approach. When Congress sees its own prerogatives being assaulted by a power-grabbing president, one of the ways it fights back is to do some exaggerating itself.
Thus we see Sen. Robert Dole in a shouting match with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra over how to pursue the Central American peace plan. Senator Dole was foresighted enough to bring a camera crew to record this event, and both participants probably felt that they benefited from it. Among the groups to which Mr. Dole is trying to appeal in his presidential campaign, it certainly does no harm to be seen standing up to a Latin American communist dictator. And from Mr. Ortega's point of view, no Latin American politician, communist dictator or not, was ever hurt by the image of standing up to the US.
We see another Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Jack Kemp, campaigning through Central America for the contras. He won the endorsement of Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson, once suspected of involvement in Salvadorean death squads, and held what was described as a ``heated'' meeting with Salvadorean President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte. He apparently neglected to record this on film.
Finally, we see House Speaker Jim Wright negotiating with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez about a Central American peace plan and then using the prestige of his office to help Mr. Arias promote it. The forays of Mr. Dole and Mr. Kemp through Central America may be dismissed as presidential campaign exuberance. The Wright initiative has much more substance and is a pure, classic example of congressional reaction to White House maneuvers.
On Aug. 5, to the dismay of some of his anti-Reagan, anti-contra Democrats in the House, Mr. Wright joined Mr. Reagan in putting forth a Central American peace plan, one of the few genuine bipartisan proposals of this administration. Two days later, the Central American Presidents, meeting in Guatemala, adopted a similar plan, which differed in some details and which had been put forward by Arias. Both plans called for a suspension of aid to guerrillas.
Wright embraced the Arias plan; Reagan did not. Further, as time neared for a decision on future US aid to the contras, Ronald Reagan began to find more fault with the plan and with Nicaraguan compliance with it.
The Sandinistas allowed the opposition newspaper La Prensa to reopen; this was not enough. They appointed their outspoken critic, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, to the National Reconciliation Commission called for by the plan; this was not enough, either. It began to appear that whatever the Sandinistas did would not be enough.
In these circumstances, Wright's relations with Arias do not look like congressional meddling so much as they look like the Speaker of the House doing what the secretary of state should have been doing if the administration had been serious about the Wright-Reagan plan in the first place.
Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.