Congress always reflects the country's mood, and this year is no exception. In a nation that does not want to be bothered by anything that does not translate into immediate personal benefit, the lawmakers last week capped a session largely devoted to comforting the comfortable and letting everyone else go hang.
The mood was typified by the legislators turning their backs on the year's major civil rights bill, while rushing to assure the millions of middle-class Social Security recipients (probably gratuitously) that they will get their cost-of-living benefits increase, no matter how low inflation may be.
These actions, along with many others, are obviously responsive to the prevailing mood after four years of Ronald Reagan's presidency, a mood I have heard expressed by dozens of voters in the past month.
It is not anti-government. That mislabels it. It is a mood that is perfectly willing to use government for goals that appeal to the personal self-interest of the majority, while denying its assistance to the minority who may be victims.
So it was with the session's most important civil rights bill, aimed at closing a loophole in the enforcement of rights that was opened by a Februkary Supreme Court decision in the Grove City College case. In that case, the court's conservative majority held that an institution that discriminates -- in this case, a college that refused to certify it would not discriminate against women on financial aid -- would not lose all its federal assistance, but only the funds going to that particular program.
The furor over the decision encouraged civil rights backers in Congress to seek broad legislation making it clear that Congress intended no federal funds to go to institutions that discriminate on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, physical or mental handicap or age.
The Reagan administration, which had argued for the narrow application of the anti-discrimination provision, opposed the bill as going too far. But the backers brushed this opposition aside. "This bill will pass overwhelmingly and speedily, with or without administration support," said Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.). Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Congress would "send a message to the White House that the bipartisan coalition on civil rights is alive and well in Congress in 1984."
They were wrong. The measure swept through the House by a 375-32 margin, and picked up sponsorship from 63 senators. But conservatives, encouraged by the White House, dug in and used procedural delays to keep it from the Senate calendar. Last week, when an attempt to tack it on to an emergency money bill foundered, Kennedy and Packwood were on opposite sides of the tactical battle over what Kennedy called "a cold and calculating compromise." That compromise itself failed.
That is how it is in Reagan's America in 1984. Civil rights is no longer a mainstream concern; it is left to men such as Kennedy and Packwood, who are regarded as far-out liberals in their own parties. The idea of using government leverage to aid victims is out of fashion.
It may return; these things go in cycles. But for now, the middle-class majority wants government looking out for middle-class interests, as it sees them. It wants anti-crime bills, so the House passes them and then repasses them in a package to make sure no one misses the gesture. Middle- class families want their kids protected, so the House -- so chary of federal interference in other areas -- passes a bill giving the federal government authority to inspect amusement-park rides.
And it rushes through a measure telling the millions of Social Security recipients -- who sure do vote -- that they will get their cost-of-living adjustment in January, even if inflation has been below the 3 percent floor set in the law (which it probably won't be).
Reagan was right out front on that issue. Last July, he asked Congress to send that assurance to the beneficiaries of the largest middle-class entitlement program. The Senate did so 87-3 and the House by 417-4. The only argument was which party deserved the most credit for the measure.
Don't call the politicians cynical. They are our representatives. And they reflect our values just as surely as Reagan does. If something smells, it's the "I'm-all-right-Jack" philosophy most of us are living by these days.