The Reagan express was derailed during the 1985 session of Congress, running into the resistance of an increasingly restive and independent legislative branch. The session was dominated by inconclusive trench warfare over spending, the federal debt and taxes. And neither side emerged this weekend with the ability to claim glowing achievement.
It was a decidedly political session of Congress for a non-election year. President Reagan came in on the euphoria of a massive personal election victory. But, handicapped among other things by White House personnel shuffling, he failed to translate that victory into another surge forward for his Reagan Revolution.
There were the expected philosophical and ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans. But 1985 also was a year in which the President had sharp breaks with his own party in Congress--with Senate Republicans on the budget, and with the GOP in the House over tax reform. These clashes added to the President’s difficulties in dealing with Congress.
White House truculence also frustrated the ability of a bright new Senate leadership team under Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) to shape the budget-deficit debate, which Dole considered the one key issue of the session. By late fall the deficit initiative had been seized by two junior senators, Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) and Warren B. Rudman (R-N.H.), the authors of a gimmicky deficit-reduction plan signed into law by the President on Dec. 12.
The strongest leadership, in fact, came from the House under a resurgent Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. (D-Mass.). Pressure from the House protected Social Security from budget cuts, and brought to a halt the massive Reagan increases in defense spending. By personal force, Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) kept his committee at work until it produced a version of the President’s one major initiative of the year, tax reform.
In fact, Congress and not the White House had the initiative on most issues in 1985, including foreign affairs. It forced the President into compromises on South Africa sanctions and some trade matters, and barred Reagan from sending direct military assistance to Nicaraguan rebels and selling sophisticated arms to Jordan.
With political stalemate at almost every turn, the major achievements of the first session of the 99th Congress were limited and dubious ones: a deficit-reduction formula that few trust or understand, and a Democratic tax-revision plan that faces an uncertain future in the Senate.
The good news of the session was that Congress protected the domestic budget from further Administration onslaughts, and kept national attention focused on the deficit problem--the legacy of the first Reagan term. The trick in the second session of the 99th Congress, starting in just one month, is to do more of the same--and then to get the President to work with Congress on a real deficit-reduction program.