RECENT actions by congressional leaders raise old questions about the relationship between Congress and the president, and the role political parties play in that relationship.
In the House, majority leaders Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri and majority whip David Bonior (D) of Michigan are opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement, one of the keystones of the Clinton administration program.
In the Senate, minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas has been trying to assert a congressional role in sending US troops abroad. So has majority leader Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia.
Question: Must the leaders of the president's party in Congress support the president's program? If so, should Congress be considered an independent branch of government? If not, to whom does the president turn to help implement his program?
Question: Is foreign policy bipartisan, with Congress rallying behind the president? Or may Congress debate it?
When the party system is superimposed on the system of separate presidential and congressional powers, each system interferes with the other. Neither works very well. That is a principal cause of gridlock in Congress.
Something is wrong with a system that permits one party to control the House for 40 years while the Senate and the presidency are competitive. Other problems include fund-raising excesses, disproportionate influence of individual interest groups, diffusion of power in Congress, proliferation of subcommittees, more jurisdictional squabbles, and weaker leadership.
None of these problems can be helped by the tinkering suggested by Ross Perot and others. Term limits for members of Congress, the line-item appropriations veto for the president, and a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget would not do any good either. They would make things worse.
What is needed are stronger party organizations in Congress, in the states, and in congressional districts.
IIf we are going to rewrite the Constitution, we should install some modification of the parliamentary system. A key element would be to empower Congress to remove the president in mid-term. Would Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Bonior press their opposition to NAFTA if success meant the fall of the president and would provoke a new election? Would not President Clinton hesitate to send troops if he knew this might end his tenure?
Perhaps more modest measures will bring more modest progress to the goal of stronger parties. The NAFTA debate by itself might stimulate a party realignment. It has split both parties as few issues have. As an individual agreement, NAFTA will be settled fairly soon; but the broader issue it involves will endure and grow and will disrupt each party until it is sorted out.
The use of troops also cuts across party lines, but differently. Where you stand depends on where you sit. In 1951, Sen. Richard Nixon voted against authorizing President Truman to send troops to Europe. In 1973, President Nixon vetoed the War Powers Resolution because it restricted presidential powers too much. In 1991, Senator Dole argued that the best way Congress could support American troops in the Persian Gulf was to support President Bush. In 1993, Dole argues that the best congressional support for American troops in Haiti is to not send them.
There is nothing wrong in changing your mind; Dole has been very forthright about this. What needs to be put to rest on this issue is confusion about bipartisanship. This became a presumed mark of statesmanship during the collaboration of Senator Vandenberg, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, with the Truman administration. Ever since, presidents have implied that bipartisanship means support for presidential policies.
It means no such thing, but only an open-minded, or Mr. Vandenberg's preferred word, ``nonpartisan'' approach to them. Pending emergence of a consensus, it means debate. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.