97th Congress had split personality


WASHINGTON -- The 97th Congress began life as a near pawn of President Reagan, but ended its two-year session by reasserting its independence and battering the president on some of his most cherished issues.

The 97th, which trudged wearily out of Washington last week -- the House at 9:56 p.m. Tuesday and the Senate at 1:13 p.m. Thursday -- was the Congress with a split personality. It is difficult to generalize about any of its actions because there almost always is an example of a contradictory action.


It passed the largest tax cut in history, then turned around and passed the largest tax increase in history, although the money was collected from different sources. And its last action was to raise gasoline taxes five cents a gallon.

The 97th adopted a budget last year that appeared to revise the social fabric of America, slashing domestic spending and increasing military spending. It then spent the next year chipping away at the budget and restoring many of the cuts it had ordered.


The economy hung over the Congress for the whole two years, with unemployment gradually rising and the level of business activity gradually falling. But, like the weather, the lawmakers were unable to do anything about it.

The Senate was controlled by Republicans 54-46 and the House by Democrats 242-192, but Congress as a whole was controlled first by a coalition of Republicans and 'Boll Weevil' Democrats, then later by a coalition of mainline Democrats and Republicans who either were frightened by the state of the economy or feared a backlash that could destroy their own political careers.

Yet, even during the height of the conservative juggernaut, none of the New Right constiuttional amendments -- abortion, school prayer and school busing -- even came to a vote. The balanced budget amendment was defeated.

At the same time, the 97th, while it could not be called a civil rights Congress, did extend the most effective civil rights law of the century -- the Voting Rights Act -- and went to arms when the Reagan administration ruled that tax breaks could not be denied to private schools that discriminate.

The 97th ended in confusion and disarray, the Senate embroiled in a filibuster almost until the end.


The lawmakers were able to pass only three of their 13 regular appropriations bills before the fiscal year began Oct. 1. By the time they left for home, only seven had been passed with the rest of the government operating under a stopgap continuing resolution.

There were calls for reform but if past experience is any indication, any reform will be slow in coming, if it comes at all.

For the most part, the 97th Congress became a holding action, saving cherished programs and refusing to tackle the obvious problems of others, and blocking action by the conservative tide that appeared to come with the Reagan presidency.

Along the way, the Congress-with-a-split-personality managed to hold to the status quo more often that it gave way to change.

Social Security became a political football, but not a subject of serious legislation. The Education and Energy Departments were saved; Amtrak was saved; student aid was saved, although slashed; Interior Secretary James Watt was blocked repeatedly from attacking the wilderness.

It was a schizophrenic year for scandals, too: Abscam, which resulted in the defeat of several congressmen, contrasted with the congressional page scandal, where an investigation showed there was much less than met the eye.


The 97th Congress presided over a change in the way the country is run, but not the revolution Reaganites had hoped for. In fact, the 97th must be a disappointment for Reagan; at best, he got half a loaf.

After initial major victories in 1981 on budget and tax items, Reagan watched his victories decrease in number as unemployment grew. After the Nov. 2 congressional elections, when Democrats gained 26 seats in the House, the roof seemed to fall in.

The first possible anti-Reagan vote after the election was a House vote on the MX missile. The lawmakers crushed his request for production funds so badly that even a somewhat more sympathetic Senate could not reverse the decision.

'They (congressmen) thought they got a message from their constituents that they had to take something out and shoot it,' said House GOP whip Trent Lott of Mississippi.

The MX wasn't the only Reagan request that Congress shot.

His balanced budget constitutional amendment was killed easily. His urban enterprise zone plan was not considered seriously, and changes he wanted in the Clean Air Act never made it to either the House or Senate floor.

An immigration bill sought by Reagan, giving amnesty to current illegal aliens but cracking down on those who hire future illegals, was pulled. Also quashed were establishment of a government propaganda radio station aimed at Cuba, a bill to restructure the bankruptcy courts before a Dec. 24 Supreme Court deadline, and revisions in the system of federal regulation.


Time also ran out on Reagan's Caribbean aid plan and on a bill to give farmers surplus government grain in exchange for not growing their own.

But Congress did give Reagan some victories, including bills setting procedures to designate nuclear waste sites, and an anti-crime bill including a mandatory 15-year sentence for habitual criminals who commit armed robbery.

And Reagan can boast that he did have a profound effect on federal spending, especially in the military area.

Despite the MX setback, which may be temporary, he gained much of the increase he asked in military spending.

Latest Headlines