Maybe it was the weather. For days last week Washington has been drenched in rain under glowing skies with even the woods in Rock Greek Park taking on a dark and somber air. Everything seemed dank and desultory, humid and sticky. The Congress grappled with its multitude of issues, tried to complete its agenda and its session, but the action was slow. The President spoke of slowing his pace and putting off major new proposals, and he too, plant on getting out of town shortly.
As the President says, two great issues confront the Congress - completion of Social Security refinancing and resolution of the energy legislative package. But to watch the public process at work on these matters on Capitol Hill is to come away surprised that anything gets done.
The scene on the floor the other day was a study in emptiness as the Social Security issue came before the House of Representatives. Thick gray clouds were scudding over the Capitol dome outside as the representatives began considering an issue of concern and signifficance to virtually every American. Inside that brightly lighted chamber stood row upon row of empty chairs. Fewer than one out of 10 members of Congress had attended. William A. Steiger, a Republican from Wisconsin, had advanced to the lectern facing the nearly-empty House. He began his remarks in forceful tones:
"Mr. Chariman, there is not any question that the Social Security system is an absolutely fundamental part of the American society and the American economy.
"I think it is also farily clear that almost any one of the suggestions that are offered, whether in the committee bill or by amendment, poses difficult, tough choices for members of Congress and their constituents, because the time has passed for us to continue to play politics with the Social Security system. The time is here for us now to take extensive action to insure the soundness and the stability of this important, absolutely fundamental system to this society . . . "
But the discussion - it was not a debate - dragged and droned.
On the other side of the Capitol members of the Senate and House were conferring about their differences over national energy policy. They sat around green-felt tables set together in a rectangle while personal aides, staff members, spectators and press filled the few rows of chairs surrounding them. It was a sleeve-rolled-up, elbow-to-elbow, often fractius session in a smoke-filled room where tempers and fatigue showed through the exchanges.
The conferees through the thicket of legislative proposals and took up amendment upon amendment tacked on to try to satisfy a host of conflicting special interests: oil producers, and conservationists; Sun Belt states and northern crimes. It was Wyoming coal vs. Florida concerns, gasoline shortages vs. New England tourism.
It was saivng energy by saving transportation costs - but how you defined saving energy and saving transportation costs depended on where you sat and whom you represented. It was regional interest colliding with regional interest. The shape of a truly national policy was hard to find.
"This doesn't belong in this bill at all," said Sen. Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio.
"That which belongs in this bill at all that which gets a majority vote," replied Sen. J. Benentt Johnston of Louisiana.
"That's an old Senate remedy," said Sen. Clifford P. Hansen of Wyoming.
An amendment to a wool products labeling act of 1939 somehow surfaced.
That had absolutely nothing to do with energy, one congressmen objected. Oh, but it does, it does, a senator countered. He went on to sketch, quickly, the energy relevance of wool: sheep eat grass, grass takes fertilizer, fertilizer is a petroleum product.
A Southern congressman objected strongly to one proposed amendment: it was simply a device to change the latest Clean Air Act amendments passed by Congress last summer. No, indeed, it had a direct bearing on the efficient production of energy, said a Western senator.
So it went: talk of government "van" pools for employees, car airbags, solar hearing experimwents, coal conversion, differences between a $100 million item cleared by the Senate and similar $39 million and by the House.
They were still conferring when the President met the press on another dreary day.
These have not been the easiest of times for Jimmy Carter. He's being criticized, among other things, for trying to do too much, and not doing enough; for failing to lead, and being too bambitious; for not understanding the ways of Washington, and compromising too readily under Washington's political pressures. He is said to have a temper, to be stubborn and stiff-necked, to be too self-confident. Perhaps so. But this week, Carter showed another quality. He was introspective, open, not defensive and somewhat resigned as he answered criticisms of his presidential actions. He was, in fact, eloquent as he gave what amounted to a soliloquy on leadership.
"My own attittude toward leadership in politics," he said, "when I was governor of Georgia and since I've been President and during the campaign itself, was to try analyze the most difficult questions that face our nation and not to be timid or reticent about seeking solutions for them - recognizing that some of them hare historic in nature, some of them have very difficult aspects that almost defy solution, but that they're all important to our country.
"The Mideast question is maybe a thousand years old or more, but we're working hard to try to solve it under the most difficult of circumstances. To put a limit on the spread of atomic weapons is something that has defied solution for the last 35 years. and to work harmoniously with the Soviet Union in reducing strategic weapons with which we could destroy each other is one that has been addressed by all my predecessors, not yet successfully by any of us.
"The energy policy of our country has escaped political decision for years because perhaps it is so difficult. The welfare problem is predictably controversial. The Social Security system was doing into bankruptcy had not something been done about it."
He added: "I believe that any one of these questions could be assumed difficult and controversial and not easy of solution. But I could not bring myself, as President responsible for our people's security and for the welfare of our citizens, for the redressing of some long-standing problems, to delay them simply to avoid controversy."
That was President Carter at his best. And that kind of clear expression of national goals and problems is what has been missing these torpid days. Many things may have changed in Washington, but it's still true that only one voice speaks most directly to the needs of the nation.As we saw last week, it is the President, not the Congress, that best articulates the nation themes.
The question now is whether those words of the President, reflecting as they do a more tempered vision of leadership, can begin to change the heavy political climate, as surely as the wind swept away the rain this weekend.