A chastened 97th Congress came back from the November elections talking earnestly about reining in the defense budget, helping the victims of recession and generally tidying up its act.
Instead, in their testy and unruly lame-duck session the lawmakers approved a record peacetime increase in defense spending, dropped job-creating plans in the face of a White House veto threat--and voted large increases in their own incomes.
They also fought to the end over a bill to finance highway repairs with a nickel-a-gallon increase in the federal gasoline tax. That tax is regressive, hitting poor people hardest, and even administration economists said the tax-and-repair program would knock out more jobs than it would create by siphoning more money out of the economy than it put in.
House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) had warned President Reagan when he demanded the post-election session that lame-duck sessions never produce much good.
As Congress wearily struggled yesterday to wrap up its modest legislative Christmas gift to the country, few could be found on Capitol Hill who would disagree with the leaders' original assessment.
"If we are fortunate, the lame-duck session will end today," said O'Neill caustically as the day began. But the dispirited mood probably was summed up better by the number of senators who stubbornly continued to wear little yellow lapel pins: the rear ends of ducks, their fannies held high in mock defiance of the occasion.
But the problem wasn't just the lame-duck session, frustrating and unproductive as it was.
Reagan's efforts to reverse the trends of the last half-century by reducing the role of government in the lives of most Americans had put enormous strains on the creaky machinery of a politically divided Congress. This, in turn, resulted in delays and stop-start lurches in legislative activity that produced a new phenomenon: government by "continuing resolution."
Even after Reagan yesterday signed Congress' latest resolution, six of the regular 13 appropriations bills remained to be passed nearly three months after the start of the current fiscal year. This meant that money for about half the government had not been submitted fully to the scrutiny, fine-tuning and legislative balancing that was intended in the long-standing congressional appropriations process.
Perhaps more important, it also meant that Congress was doing most of its work in three big gulps: a budget to set spending and taxing targets, a "reconciliation" package to make the program cuts necessary to keep deficits under at least some control and an omnibus continuing resolution to make all the requisite appropriations.
Most of the accomplishments of the 97th Congress, with the exception of a few things like extension of the Voting Rights Act last year and passage of legislation for nuclear waste disposal this year, can be found in these three forms of catch-all legislation.
Nonetheless, it was a historic session, which, under prodding from Reagan, escalated the nation's military buildup, reversed the trend toward ever-larger domestic welfare programs and aimed for economic revival through lower taxes on those who can afford to invest in growth-producing endeavors.
Even in the lame-duck session -- with increasing restiveness even in GOP ranks--Reagan was calling the tune as Democrats waited for an infusion of new blood that would strengthen their hold on the House in the 98th Congress and Republicans groped for ways to avoid even more damage, including losing the Senate, in 1984.
But one of these ways out is likely to be a Republican anti-recession jobs program, which Baker promised when jobs money for this year was shelved, and this could help make the 98th Congress less of a Reagan rubber stamp than the 97th was. Reagan also lost in the lame-duck session on many specifics, from production money for the MX missile to urban enterprise zones, and the losses were coming with increasing rapidity as Congress, sensing that Reagan was no longer larger than life politically, lost some of its fear of defying him.
And there were clear signals that his budget for fiscal 1984, if it includes the heavy new domestic spending cuts that the White House is planning, will be dead on arrival on Capitol Hill in January.
But, at least in the lame-duck session, there were no signs of a genuine rebellion or wholesale reversal of direction.
With a few exceptions like increased fuel assistance for the poor and extended unemployment benefits, all of which Reagan had approved in advance, Congress continued to clamp down on domestic spending, while increasing military approprations. The Pentagon got $17 billion less than Reagan wanted, but overall military spending would still rise from $205.3 billion last year to $232 billion this year, an increase of 6 percent over inflation.
Nor, for all the talk of redressing the balance of the 198l tax cut and shifting some of the blessings to low- to moderate-income taxpayers, did Congress do much about it.
Instead, House Democratic leaders joined Senate Republicans and the Reagan administration in pushing the increase in the gas tax, which, as a sales tax levied on all regardless of income, ranks along with the Social Security tax as the most regressive of all federal levies.
Senate Democrats did try to substitute higher income taxes on the rich for the gas tax increase, but they failed. The Senate even rejected an attempt to give a $25 a year tax credit to low-income families to help relieve the burden of the new federal gas taxes.
Spending to create jobs was another case in point.
Democrats, in particular, trumpeted the jobs cause after the November elections and subsequent announcement of a post-depression record unemployment rate of 10.8 percent.
House leaders drafted a proposal for $5.4 billion in public works and related jobs, which, along with a more modest $1.2 billion proposal from the Senate, was jettisoned in House-Senate conference on the continuing resolution.
One reason was that Reagan had served notice that he would veto the measure if it included the jobs aid. There were not enough votes to override a veto; the jobs money had to be dropped in order to keep money flowing to affected government agencies.
Another and perhaps more compelling reason was that the measure included a $9,100-a-year pay raise for House members, along with elimination of all limits on outside income for senators, that could have been lost in a post-veto effort to rewrite the continuing resolution.
Members had a hard enough time summoning the political courage to vote to increase their own pay the first time, and many confessed that they were unlikely to do so again.
The irony is that a case can be made for raising congressional pay, especially in light of the costs of maintaining two homes, which is a particular burden for younger, less affluent members. What gets the lawmakers in trouble is when they try to sneak their raises through the back door.
This year they started out in a rather straight-forward way, then lost nerve, and finally wound up with the House skittishly dodging a roll-call vote on the continuing resolution so no one would know exactly who voted which way on the pay increase.
Similarly, the Senate magnanimously turned down the pay raise in exchange for no limits on outside income, which, for many senators with busy speech-making schedules, will be more lucrative than the pay raise House members will receive.
There were other ironies as well, not the least of which was the drive for a balanced budget, which Reagan had once sought for 1983. Now, with the recession's adverse effect on both revenues and spending, deficits of $200 billion or more are projected for the next few years, three times the pre-Reagan records.
On most other fronts, the record was mixed. The budget so dominated the session that most other legislation got swept aside, including immigration law revisions, major regulatory changes, clean air and clean water legislation, hazardous waste disposal rules and comprehensive criminal code revision. Social Security financing reforms were handed over to a presidential commission but will face Congress next year.
Environmentalists did better than some of them expected, as did consumer, labor and other groups that benefited mainly from the fact that budget pressures kept Congress from acting on many proposals before it.
Despite his spending victories, Reagan failed to get his "New Federalism" program to shift responsibilies to the states, and his plans to kill the energy and education departments and a variety of other agencies, including the Legal Services Corp., were ignored. His ambitious wish list for the lame-duck session was largely unfulfilled.
The New Right's agenda of social issues, including abortion, busing, school prayer and tax credits for children in private schools, slipped off the table as the session neared an end. New restrictions on Medicaid-financed abortions were approved, but stiff Senate-passed curbs on busing got lost in the House.
But it was the past week's action on the continuing resolution that probably said more about the 97th Congress than anything else. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) bitingly noted that, for a whole year's operations, the Senate gave foreign aid 15 minutes, jobs 38 minutes and the NATO allies 13 minutes.
"To rush through, on a last-minute basis, the bill which funds 78 percent of appropriated monies, makes a mockery of the Senate tradition as 'The World's Greatest Deliberative Parliamentary Body,' " Eagleton said. "This year's continuing resolution stands as a monument to non-deliberation."