A positive genius for negative coalition-making distinguishes the Congress these days. On issue after issue, diverse and often opposing groups repeatedly come together to thwart the president.
Indeed, the administration's big wins occur only when the Republicans abandon their normal role as leaders of the oppositions. As a result, the president is now strategy of confronting the Congress with a string of vetoes.
One good example of the negative majority came on a measure critical for transporting relatively cheap and clean coal from the Rocky Mountain states to the South and Midwest. That measure - the coal slurry pipeline bill - was defeated in the House two weeks ago, 245 to 161.
The opposition included 90 Republicans and 156 Democrats. The Democrats were mobilized against the bill by railroad labor, concerned about the impact of pipelines on their coal business, and environmentalists, worried about the use of scarce water resources in the slurry mixture. In that spirit the whole Colorado delegation voted against the president.
Another case is the gutting in the House Civil Service Committee of one of the few proposals that would genuinely improve government performance: the Civil Service Reform Act, with its provision for a senior executive service. The first dent in the proposal was an amendment, made at the behest of organized labor, breaching the Hatch Act prohibition against participation by federal employees in partisan politics. That enraged the Republican members, who hit back by putting over the top an amendment offered by Glady's Spellman, a Democrat with a large civil-service constituency in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. The Spellman amendment; by putting the senior executive service on a trial two-year basis, in effect dismantles the whole proposal.
A final example is the smashing setback dealt to the critical anti-inflation bill - the administration's proposal for hospital-costs containment. By a 22-to-21 vote, the House Interstate Commerce Committee approved an amendment that converted the mandatory program sought by the administration into a voluntary program.
On the critical vote 13 of the 14 Republicans supported the voluntary program. Nine Democrats deserted the administration, including six relatively new members from marginal seats who apparently didn't mind being profiled as standing against the administration on an issue dear to the hospital lobby.
The exceptions that fortify the rule explain the administration's three biggest victories in the Congress this year. They came in the Senate on the Panama Canal treaties, the sale of planes to Saudi Arabia, and the lifting of the embargo on aid to Turkey.
In all three cases the Carter administration took the position previously held by the Ford administration. Republican votes provided the margin for each victory. In other words, a past commitment caused the Republicans to abandon their natural posture as the nucleus of opposition.
Many reason explain the present proclivity in Congress for negative majorities. The country as a whole has turned off politics, so the inchoate majority that would ordinarily support measures to meet inflation, the energy problem and government inefficiency remains inchoate. "We tried to make it choate," Vice President Walter Mondale said in a recent interview, "and we just can't."
In addition, the expansion of the federal government into the areas of health and education (under Lyndon Johnson) and the environment (under Nixon and Ford) has created a host of new vested interests who pay close attention to the Congress. The hospital administrators are one case in point; the environmentalist lobby is another.
Finally there is the president's group in public esteem, as reflected in the polls and the everyday experience of most legislators. Senators and congressmen - particularly those facing tough elections in marginal destricts this fall - are eager to identify themselves in opposition to the administration on some salient issues.
President Carter, in these conditions, has a strong interest in making it costly for Democrats to oppose him. That interest has led some of his advisers to press for confrontation in the form of vetoes. The public-works bill, with many water projects opposed by the president, is one candidate for a veto. The tax bill with its generous provisions on capital gains, is another.
But while the temptation is strong, the veto strategy carries some high risks. it would be extremely difficult for the president to make a veto of the tax bill stick in this election year, and Carter could end up a loser and with some irreconcilable enemies. So, in my judgement at least, the best outcome would be a little more sense of loyalty in the Democratic majority, making possible continued restraint in the White House and compromises rather than confrontation.