WHERE LAWMAKING is concerned. Congress is certainly in an ornery mood. The more the law-makers disagree among themselves about, say, regulatory policies, the more they tend to assert veto power over various agencies' regulations and rules. In the Alaska land bill this week, for instance, the House gave the Secretary of Interior broad authority-but made nearly all secretarial actions subject to disapproval by either house. Within the last few weeks, House committees have proposed at least four more legislative vetoes of various sorts. They would cover presidential proposals for export controls, the Environmental Protection Agency's rule regulating pesticides, some of the Federal Aviation Administration's airplane noise controls, and every rule that the proposed Education Department might suggest.
Now, in some fields, such as foreigh policy and government reorganization, it makes sense to grant the executive branch broad initiative, subject to congressional check. But many of the more than 200 legislative vetoes on the books, and most of those pending, involve fields in which Congress should either be setting clear, detailed policies by law or be delegating the hard decisions to administrators and refraining from second-guessing them.
Instead, Congress seems more and more inclined to buck the legislative challenges to the executive branch, and then snipe at the results. All the worst aspects of this approach were embarrassingly plain in the recent gas-rationing fight. A previous Congress had recognized that the nation probably should have some contingency rationing plan-but had refused to take the political pain of drafting one. Instead, it ordered the president to do so. He did. Various senators had objections. Some frantic adjustments were made. And then the changes that had mollified the Senate became liabilities in the House, where many members also refused to look beyond their own constituents' immediate concerns.
That's where the buck-and-veto method of legislating can lead: to an embarassing debacle that only confirms Congress' own fragmentation and lack of self-discipline. You can see the same tendencies in each of the other fields in which legislative vetoes are being advanced. Instead of reserving the right to nay-say and nit-pick, the House and Senate should concentrate on passing more coherent laws and figuring out how to oversee programs as a whole-not one rule at a time.