The situation is rich in irony. Here is the president who rode a tide of antigovernment sentiment into the White House, where he promised he would gain control of an insulated and often unresponsive bureaucracy.
And here is the Congress of the president's own party, which has felt the same antigovernment stirrings and decided to take matters into its own hands.
They find themselves - Jimmy Carter and the Democratic-controlled Congress - at loggerheads now over Congress' choice of weapons to tame the bureaucracy, a device known as the legislative veto.
Simply put, the device empowers one or both houses of Congress, and in some cases a congressional committee, to overturn actions of executive branch departments and agencies. Legislative veto devices have been a part of American law for more than four decades, but recently have come much more into vogue. The president has thundered that they are unconstitutional and threatened to ignore them in the future. The Congress, at this point, seems singularly unimpressed by that threat.
Round three in the Carter-Congress dispute was played out yesterday in peaceful surroundings of the White House Rose Garden. Greeting a group of YMCA youth governors from around the country, the president complained that the distinctions among the three branches of government "are being clouded considerably, especially in recent months."
"The executive has to have the right . . . to execute and carry out the laws of Congress and to do it effectively," Carter said.
Presidents and congresses have always disagreed about the legislative veto, although these disputes usually have been of interest mostly to them and to scholars of the Constitution. But last week, Carter decided to make it a highly public issue. He sent a message to Congress denouncing the device as a threat to the foundations of American government and declaring that he no longer would consider legislative vetoes to be binding.
The congressional reaction was not long in coming. One week after receiving the presidential message, the House voted 244 to 140 to give itself a one-house 90-day veto over all regulations pertaining to housing and community development laws issued by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The gauntlet has now been thrown down," declared Rep. Elliott Levitas (D-Ga.), one of the House's most ardent proponents of the legislative veto.
Beneath the bluster at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, there is a serious constitutional question. The Constitution gives Congress the sole power to enact laws, and the president power to veto those laws. The legislative veto, White House critics charge, turns that process upside down, giving Congress an unlimited veto power that is not subject to any check by the executive branch.
Not so, retort Levitas and others in Congress. They contend that the federal government has grown so large that the bureaucracy constitutes "a fourth branch," issuing regulations that have the force of law but are never reviewed by the legislature. The legislative veto, its supporters argue, is a way for the Congress to regain its proper place in the marking of the nation's laws.
Two years ago, congressional research found 295 legislative veto provisions scattered among 196 laws. Last week, the White House issued its own more limited list 117 laws in which there are legislative veto provisions the president considers especially onerous.
The White House list provides an interesting barometer of congressional-presidential relations. Through years of Democratic control of the White House, Congress - also controlled by the Democrats in all but four years since the New Deal - was spare in its enactment of legislative vetoes, averaging three a year from 1932 to 1968.
But late in the 1960s, there was bitter disillusionment with presidential power because of the Vietnam war.
The came the Nixon years, with its scandals and widespread power. The 93rd Congress alone, during the last two years of the Nixon administration, enacted legislative vetoes in 24 laws.
It is one of the ironies of the present situation that Carter, who so deftly played on the public disgust with the excesses of the Nixon presidency in his campaign, should find himself now increasingly frustrated by one of Nixon's principal legacies - a Congress that is determined to regain its role in the shaping of foreign and domestic policy.
As a practical matter, the legislative veto itself has not cause major problems for the Carter administration. The 95th Congress currently on Capitol Hill has enacted such provisions into nine bills and the president, complaining all the way. Congress has exercised its veto powers only a handful of times in the last 18 months, the latest instance occurring on May 22 when it blocked a consolidation of advisory commissions to the commissioner of education.
What alarms officials in the White House and elsewhere in the administation is the trend. Contradicting the history of the last 40 years, the congressional appetite for the legislative veto seems not to have been tamed by the mere fact that a Democrat now holds the White House.
According to White House officials, Congress is considering adding legislative veto provisions to as many as 40 bills. Some would be all-inclusive, giving Congress power to veto all government regulations. These bills are unlikely to pass and undoubtedly would be vetoed by Carter. But there are others, like the HUD bill, that would give Congress power to veto such matters as railway routes, highway regulations. Civil Service Commission rules and Civil Aeronautics Board decisions.
One White House official predicts a possible "major test of wills" this summer involving the Federal Trade Commission. As so often has been the case, the House inserted a legislative veto in the FTC authorization bill, but the Senate refused to go along and it was dropped in a conference committee. But then the House did an unexpected thing - it rejected the conference committee report, leaving the FTC without new authorization as the end of the fiscal year approaches.
White House officials say they understand what has led Congress to its current romance with the legislative veto.
"It's a question of how to get a handle on the government as a whole, what is the best way to manage the government," said one aide. "Probably, its roots go back to the New Deal . . . We just think it's a lousy way to make government regulation better."
Moreover, administration officials argue that even when legislative veto powers are not exercised, their mere existence has a chilling effect. Too often, they say, government agencies shape their regulations to satisfy the committees with intial veto jurisdiction over them. And too often, one aide argues, this means that regulations are written to satisfy "a few members of Congress who don't necessarily represent the will of Congress as a whole."
But the Congressional side of the argument receives support from at least two political scientists who have studied the matter.
"Tne of the biggest problems of modern government is the attempt to gain some supervisory control over the bureaucrats," sand Martin Shapiro of the University of California.
"The regulatory commissions are in limbo between Congress and the presidency," he added. "Carter has little control over the agencies, and Congress wouldn't have much control either if it weren't for legislative vetoes."
Arthur Mass, professor of government at Harvard, called the legislative veto Congress necessary attempt to adapt itself to "progress and growth in government programs."
In the current context, there is little the president can do except complain aloud and perhaps, as one White House aide suggested. "Veto a bill or two" with legislative veto provisions.
But both sides in the dispute agree it will have to be settled in the courts.
The best chance for the involves a case, currently before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in which the extension of a visa to a foreign student studying in the United States was oventurned in Congress.
A more celebrated case, but farther from resolution, involves public access to the Nixon White House tape recordings. Congress vetoed three sets of government regulations governing public access before it accepted a fourth set. Nixon sued, arguing that the process that resulted in the fourth set was unconstitutional.
In one of the topsy-turvy aspects of the dispute, Carter's Justice Department has filed a brief supporting Nixon's position.
"In the end, the only way to settle this issue is by litigation," one White House aide said. "And it has to be a Supreme Court decision or nobody will accept it as final."