The record of the 95th Congress charts the ups and downs of the Carter administration. First the Congress laid back as a president, new to office and faithful to a multitude of ill-advised campaign promises, made mistakes after mistakes.
Then, when Carter, learning the lesson of his errors, started to turn around, the Congress had a field day at his expense. But once having corrected the early bloopers, the president gained the whip hand and finished strong.
At the outset Carter set some kind of a record for serving up new and comprehensive programs. Far-reaching proposals on taxes, energy, welfare, water policy, government reorganization, welfare and hospital costs flew from the White House to the Hill. Also demands for approving the Panama Canal and new policies on troops in Korea, on nuclear proliferation and human rights.
During that time the president's popularity was running high. The Congress, thouhg full of reservations if only because it was being commanded more than consulted, bided its time. The president's energy bill went through the House intact, and the only concession the administration made was to remove a proposed $50 tax rebate from the economic stimulus bill.
The turning point was the sad affair that led to the resignation of Carter's friend and budget director, Bert Lance. The president's popularity plummeted, and the country and the Congress came to the conclusion that he was just another politico - not one who could walk on water. Thus armed, the Congress went to work on the Carter program with a vengeance.
Reform was drained out of the tax proposals, and price restraints out of the natural-gas part of the energy program. The president was made to swallow a pork-barrel public-works bill including several water projects he had vowed to stop. Welfare reform, labor-law reform and hospital-costs containment were shelved.
Republican votes were necessary to pass the Panama Canal treaties, and to win approval for arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the lifting of the embargo on arms sales to Turkey. In exchange, the president had to go ape over communist inroads in a way that soared relations with Russia.
But the administration also learned from the Lance affair. It became clear that the president could not get on by promises and a smile but had to perform. That meant changes in the White House the better to work with the Congress and public opinion.
Simultaneously Carter began to curve from some of the campaign stances door to Democrats and toward positions more in keeping with national opinion. In particular he veered from an emphasis on stimulating the economy to a stress on fighting inflation, and from a bias toward comprehensive proposals for the Middle East and disarmament to a step-by-step approach.
Those changes came slowly, and while they were under way the president looked weak and indecisive. His stock in the polls - and in the public esteem - generally plunged. But however costly in the interim, the shift from the wrong policies to the right ones paid off.
On the domestic side, the stress on inflation gave him the votes to successfully veto swollen congressional authorizations for defense and water projects. In the final days he was able to face down the formidable chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Russell Long (D-La.), to achieve acceptable energy and tax bills.
On the foreign side, a switch from the comprehensive to the step-by-step approach underlay the success of the Camp David summit. That in turn ensured a second strategic arms limitation treaty and a Big Two summit meeting in the next few months.
The upshot should satisfy most Americans. Congress has effectively represented particular and peripheral interests in ways that prevented centralized executive power from going over the cliff.
But when it comes to moving the country foward, the United States is, as Joseph Califano once wrote, a "presidential nation." The Carter administration, after two years of rediscovering the old verities, is at last in position to move the country forward.