It is far-fetched to portray the Soviet economy as "on the verge of collapse," Chairman Henry S. Reuss (D-Wis.) of the Joint Economic Committee said yesterday in making public an exceptional CIA study of the Soviet Union.
Instead, "the Soviet Union has experienced steady economic development and improving standards of living over the past 30 years despite continuing problems," he said.
Reuss, one of the most influential members of Congress on economic policy, is retiring from the House after 28 years, and he was drawing on the executive branch's own resources to deflate what he clearly regards as some of the administration's faultiest premises. They include the assertion that the Soviet Union is "an economic basket case" and can be dealt with accordingly.
"Certainly, Russia has major economic problems, some of which are related to excessive military expenditures," but there has been no sudden surge of extraordinary Soviet military outlays, Reuss said. "Defense remains a major claimant on the Soviet economy, although the annual rate of increase in military expenditures -- 4 to 5 percent -- has not accelerated since 1965," he said.
"The study illustrates that a real arms control agreement would be as much in the Soviet national interest as it would be in ours."
This new research, he said "helps put into perspective for Americans the fact that the U.S.S.R., far from being on the verge of collapse, has experienced major growth." The information "will fill a long-standing gap in the West created by Soviet secrecy" and inadequacies in published Soviet data, Reuss said.
For the new Soviet leadership of Yuri V. Andropov, pointing back to gains made over the past three decades does not relieve the dilemma about where the Soviet economy stands now. The CIA report underscores that "the Soviet economy has been in a strong growth slide since the late 1960s . . . ."
Andropov would, in fact, find many points in common between his own public assessment of the Soviet economy and the CIA study, John P. Hardt, associate director of the Congressional Research Service and a specialist on Soviet affairs, said yesterday. It is totally improbable, however, that Andropov, as former head of the Soviet KGB, would ever admit it.
Most western specialists on the Soviet economy draw on CIA statistics, Hardt noted, and now these specialists can study in detail the methodology used by the CIA.
Andropov on Nov. 22 was extraordinarily frank by Soviet standards in appraising the Soviet situation. He said key targets of the current five-year plan "turned out to be unfulfilled;" "shoddy work, inactivity and irresponsibility" persist, with glaring shortcomings in a system which espouses its economic policies as an inspiration for global revolutionary progress.
In the holiday rush to leave town, few members of Congress or the executive branch have yet read the 401-page report, entitled "USSR: Measures of Economic Growth and Development, 1950-80."
Even though largely statistical, it is expected to stimulate lively debate among professionals, depending on whether they see the Soviet cup as half full or half empty -- or worse. One staff specialist on the Joint Economic Committee said the data in the CIA study "is subject to interpretation; Chairman Reuss was interpreting it in a particular way . . . . People can make different interpretations."
How the United States perceives the Soviet economy is by no means simply a matter of academic interest; it can profoundly affect overall U.S. strategy.
The most pessimistic official characterization of the Soviet situation -- "an economic basket case" -- was made in June by a special assistant to the president, Thomas C. Reed. Many Soviet specialists in the bureaucracy privately deplored that description as gross hyperbole, and other administration officials afterward qualified their assessments.
The Soviet Union "is in the midst of an acute crisis of its governing system," Richard Pipes, then senior White House adviser on the Soviet Union, said in October. But he said, "no responsible persons can have any illusions that it is in the power of the West to alter the Soviet system or to 'bring the Soviet economy to its knees' . . . . What one can and ought to strive for is compelling the Soviet regime to bear the consequences of its own priorities."
President Reagan on Nov. 13 justified sanctions on Soviet trade "to demonstrate to Soviet leaders that their policies of oppression would entail substantial cost."
While there was no immediate White House comment on the new study or on Reuss' remarks, a National Security Council spokesman said U.S officials "certainly have not been indicating that, starting 30 years ago, the Soviet Union has been in constant decline. We are talking about the current failure of the Soviet economy."
Pipes, before leaving Washington last week to return to his Russian-history professorship at Harvard, said that while the Soviet Union seeks to impress the world with its military power and its leaps in space, its "people are living worse and worse."
Reuss, by contrast, focused on comparing where the Russians were in 1950 and now, saying: "The standard of living of the Soviet people has improved rapidly during the past 30 years. Real consumption per capita nearly tripled, rising at an average annual rate of 3.5 percent."
"Still," he said, quoting from the report, "Soviet living standards remain well below those in the United States, Japan, and most of Europe, both East and West."
"Availability of housing," he said, "has increased very slowly, with per capita living space in urban areas in 1980 still remaining below the minimum norm for health and decency set by the government in 1928."
Reuss' summary of the CIA report noted that the Soviet diet "has improved greatly" during the 30-year period, although, as the report underscores, agricultural production has been a choke point in the Soviet economy.
On the debit side, the report cites a 1980 study on "significant increases in [Soviet] infant mortality rates in the past 10-15 years" by Dr. Murray Feshbach, former top specialist on Soviet demographic affairs for the Census Bureau. A 1982 Feshbach study for the Population Reference Bureau, not mentioned in the CIA's 1950-1980 accounting, also reported a dramatic drop in the life expectancy of Soviet males, from 66 to 62 years.
"There are two sides to this story," said Robert Legvold, a Soviet specialist for the Council on Foreign Relations, depending on whether one concentrates on where the Soviet Union was 30 years ago or where it now stands compared to other nations.
The Soviet Union has made "very considerable achievements," and is a "a going enterprise," Legvold said, but "in the last five to 10 years" the trends show "steady decline." Legvold said "both sides of this story need to be reported."