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CONGRESS: Mixed Notices for the Fighting 94th

6 minute read

“Distinguished,” said House Majority Leader Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill of the 94th Congress that reached mid-point last week. “Futile,” declared House Minority Leader John Rhodes, judging the same performance.

Both O’Neill and Rhodes were partially right. The Congress that adjourned in a scramble of legislation just before Christmas was involved in more than a classic confrontation between a liberal Democratic majority and a conservative Republican President. From the rap of the first gavel last January, Congress was striving to regain lost ground in its continuing power struggle with the Executive. Simultaneously, reformers were at work in both chambers—particularly in the House—trying to liberalize and open up congressional procedures.

With top-heavy margins of 291 to 144 in the House and 61 to 38 in the Senate, the Democrats were able to reform some of the musty rules and procedures that had slowed legislation for generations in both chambers. In the House, the drive for change was helped mightily by 75 freshmen members who refused to follow two ancient dicta: newcomers should be seen and not heard, and one gets along by going along. The revolution deposed the aging, baronial chairmen of three key House committees.

New Rules. The spirit of reform also swept through the Senate, where liberal Democrats and Republicans curbed the filibuster. Under the new rules, the Senate can limit debate if 60 of its 100 members vote aye. In the past, two-thirds of all those present and voting had to assent to cloture. Last year no major legislation was talked to death on the floor. Nor did the reformers stop with these important changes. Both the Senate and the House voted to open key committee and conference meetings—heretofore held in private—to press and public.

Bad Marriage. As it streamlined and liberalized its procedures, the Congress also fought to assert its authority as a branch of the Government that is at least equal in weight to the White House. In foreign relations, Congress stubbornly defied the President for months by refusing to lift the arms embargo it had imposed on Turkey for using American arms in its invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Not until October did Congress finally ease the ban, which severely damaged U.S.-Turkish relations and disrupted the NATO alliance in the eastern Mediterranean.

Despite anguished warnings from President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Congress refused last spring to approve a request for $722 million in emergency military aid to prolong the defense of doomed South Viet Nam. Last month, further reasserting Congress’s war-powers rights, the Senate prohibited the use of this fiscal year’s defense funds for additional U.S. intervention in Angola’s civil war. In so doing, however, Congress stirred concern that its new assertiveness in foreign policymaking could hamstring the Executive branch.

Congress also moved belatedly to reclaim its right to oversee the operations of the Federal Government, notably the intelligence-gathering agencies. Both chambers established committees to investigate the CIA and the FBI. Result: a relentless flow of revelations about past abuses at home and abroad. The exposure was undoubtedly healthy—up to a point. But in the case of the CIA, it also severely hampered the agency’s effectiveness. This year, the committees may well establish guidelines for the conduct of both organizations and try to restore the long-neglected function of congressional oversight.

On another level, Congress put into effect a significant reform that made it independent of the White House on the basic issue of the budget. Instead of reacting to the President’s proposals, as before, Congress established its own goals for spending. A test of its budget-making skills looms later this year. But Congress is poised to slash $7.4 billion from the Administration’s request of $97.9 billion for the Pentagon.

No Tax Reform. Though House Democrats tried to initiate their own legislative program instead of reacting as usual to White House proposals, they were not too successful—largely because of lackluster leadership. Speaker of the House Carl Albert, 67, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, 72—who may not seek re-election next year—never really tried to marshal their troops. As a result, the Democrats did not cope with a number of important issues, including revising the antiquated federal criminal code, writing national health and no-fault auto insurance and imposing gun controls. One of Congress’s worst shortcomings was its failure to reform the tax code.

When he took office, Gerald Ford declared that he wanted a “good marriage” with Congress, but the liberal legislators and the conservative President fought long and hard over the major issues affecting the economy. In his State of the Union address last January, Ford called for a reduction of $16 billion in income taxes; Congress passed—and Ford signed—a measure that cut taxes by $22.8 billion. Says House Majority Leader O’Neill: “We shoved the tax cut down his throat.” Last month, Ford accepted an eleventh-hour agreement that extended the cuts through the first half of 1976 but did not commit Congress to a $395 billion spending ceiling.

By keeping up constant pressure, Congress induced Ford to soften his adamant stand against giving aid to New York City until it declared bankruptcy, although the President also forced many cutbacks on the city. In another compromise with the White House, Congress floundered for a year before finally passing a makeshift energy bill that had many grave weaknesses.

Hard Fights. Ford vetoed 16 bills, many on the grounds that they would contribute to inflation, which he saw as the nation’s main domestic problem. In contrast, Congress saw the recession—and its attendant unemployment—as the top problem and sought to get money flowing through the economy. Yet the leaderless Democrats were able to override only three vetoes, all on politically popular issues: school lunches, education and health care.

In the year that lies ahead, the Democrats will be trying to pass legislation to help their candidates with specific groups, such as the farmers, while Ford will continue to try to cut spending and thus enhance his image as a fiscal conservative. The prospect is for a year filled with vetoes and hard fights to override them as the President and the legislators on the Hill keep a worried eye on election day.

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