IT HAS BECOME fashionable to invoke Watergate as a way of arousing old political reflexes, much as orators used to "wave the bloody shirt" after the Civil War. House Government Operations Committee chairman Jack Brooks (D-Texas) has carried this tactic to ludicrous lengths in trying to justify his opposition to President Carter's request for limited power to reorganize the executive branch.
Mr. Carter seeks the autority to prune and consolidate federal agencies - but not to create or abolish Cabinet departments - by submitting reorganization plans that would take effect in 60 days unless disapproved by the Senate or the House. He is asking for no more flexibility than Congress gave previous chief executives between the early 1930s and 1973. Mr. Brooks, however, claims this is too much. The country has seen, he said the other day, "what can happen when Congress makes broad delegations of its powers to a president. I do want any President to have the opportunity to abuse our governmental process that Mr. Nixon assumed he had."
Waving the specter of Watergate in this way is nonsense. Watergate was not about presidential abuse of the reorganization law. When Mr. Nixon set up the "plumbers" or endorsed the Huston plan, he was operating outside of any authority that Congress or the Constitution had actually conferred on him. This is not to say that Mr. Nixon ignored or aboused his lawful authority to reorganize. He used it, for instance, to create the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Far from being aspects of Watergate, thos are good examples of how valuable the time-tested procedures can be.
Rep. Brooks, however, wants Congress to retain a larger role in future executive-branch overhauls. He advocateds making reorganization plans contingent on approval by both the Senate and the House whithin 60 days. This could enable a few opponetof plan, or even a single senator, to defeat it by blocking a floor vote until the deadline had passed. Even if such obstructionism could be precluded, as Mr. Brooks optimistically asserts, his approach would still require both houses to act on every plan. That could greatly reduce Mr. Carter's ability to abolish superfluous offices and committees, a consolidate agencies whose functions overlap, and straighten out the lines of management and responsibility.
Mr. Brooks seems to be trying to stir up a great debate about the distribution of authority between the executive branch and Congress. But this quarrel is really about the allocation of power between the new administration and Mr. Brooks. House Republican leader John J. Rhodes (D-Ariz.) has already seized on the opportunity to embarras the Democrats by introducing the administration bill, which Mr. Brooks has refused to endorse. The rest of the congressional majority will be even more embarrased if they allow one cantankerous chairman to sabotage Mr. Cif they allow one cantankerous chairman to sabotage Mr. Ce government that was central to his campaign.