Jimmy Carter's image polishers are trying hard to depict the president as an effective chief executive who, after an admittedly slow start, has finally learned how to work with Congress.
The painful truth of the matter, however, is that Carter and his White House coterie remain the same bumbling bunch of novices that appalled their friends and outraged their foes onCapitol Hill at the outset of the new administration three years ago.
The few legislative successes Carter has enjoyed look good only in contrast to the early fiascos. The adminstration's day-to-day relations with Congress can still best be described as "an incomplete success" -- to use the president's appraisal of the botched Iranian rescue mission.
"The kindest thing to say is that they're trying," the staff director of one powerful House subcommittee told my associate Peter Grant. "But they're still amateurs. They're not what you would call high on the learning curve."
The root of the problem is in the Oval Office, which gives contradictory signals to its supporters on the Hill. From there the difficulties branch out to the congressional liasion staffs of the White House and executive agencies, whose ineptitude is legendary among members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.
It's not just a failure to massage congressional egos. It's failure to communicate on the nuts and bolts of policy and legislative direction.
For example, a staff member of a leading House liberal had this to say about Patricia Harris, secretary of the new Health and Human Services Department: "We never know where she stands on an issue."
Here are some of the most recent examples of administration fumbling on Capitol Hill:
The oil import fee proposed by Carter is a perfect illustration of the way he alienates even his allies in Congress with maladroit tactics. The proposal would add 10 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline, which makes it frightening enough to members of Congress in an election year. It is also regarded by many as a budget-balancing gimmick of questionable legality, similar to a gasoline tax Congress had rejected three times before.
To make matters worse, the White House refused to turn over background documents on the proposal until the House threatened Energy Secretary Charles Duncan with a contempt citation. Sources say the documents showed that DOE officials also doubted the legality of the import fee. "They must have thought they were dealing with children," said Rep. paul McCloskey Jr. (R-Calif.), who originally supported such a tax as a conservation measure. "I'm appalled by their misunderstanding of how Congress works." Because of the White House deception, McCloskey now plans to vote against the fee.
In the House Budget Committee, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) got no administration help in his attempt to increase funds for social services, and his effort failed. Then, when he tried once again on the House floor -- a much more difficult tactic -- the White House belatedly supported him. Committee members were annoyed at Carter's apparent turnaround, and offended that they had had to learn about it from the newspapers.
The House Intelligence Committee was rebuffed by the administration when it tried to get details of the Iranian rescue mission plans. The White House said they were unavailable. Yet ABC News displayed exact maps showing the Tehran phase of the mission -- which had been left behind in an abandoned helicopter and released by the Iranians.
One congressional energy expert described Carter's idea of submitting legislation as "putting it on the step, ringing the doorbell and running." The president's latest ring-and-run bill is a $10 billion program to convert utilities from oil to coal -- a measure that is opposed by both liberals and conservatives. The futility of the exercise is demonstrated by the fact that the White House expects to get only five of the House energy subcommittee's 21 votes for the utility bill -- and will be lucky to get three.
Congress looks in vain to the White House for decisive action on important policy matters. Senate-House conferees on the synfuels legislation, for example, were unable to elicit any firm indication of the administration's stand on gasohol.
Another recent snub was delivered to Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), one of the few members of Congress to declare his support of the president at the nadir of his popularity last summer. Two recent letters to the White House have gone unanswered, and his latest phone call from the congressional liaison office was to solicit Oberstar's support for an amendment he was already sponsoring. "You wonder who is doing the homework over there," Oberstar remarked.
Even in the simplest matters of courtesy, the White House manages to drop the ball. For instance, Rep. Norman Mineta (D-Calif.), a Japanese- American, was not invited to the state dinner for the Japanese prime minister because the White House thought he was Italian.