Anyone at all realistic about the makeup and dynamics of Congress has to conclude that the prospects for substantive legislation passing the House of Representatives this year are damnably poor.
Whether it is budgetary, economic, social or military policy, the House is a legislative nightmare. It is sharply split on partisan lines, with the opening-day, party- line vote refusing to seat a contested but certified Republican winner from Indiana just a symptom of the deep divisions between the majority Democrats and the minority GOP.
House Republicans, who won close to 50 percent of the popular vote last November but gained only 42 percent of the seats, blame the gerrymandering tactics of Democratic-controlled legislatures for their minority status. They are further embittered that on key House committees, the Democrats have given themselves larger majorities than their numbers in the House entitle them to claim.
Beyond the partisan differences, there are deep ideological splits. Many of the young conservative Republicans elected in the last five years want to carry out what they see as "the Reagan Revolution" without compromise with the dominant Democrats. Many of the old-guard liberal Democrats are determined to thwart them.
As if that were not enough, both parties are divided internally on generational lines. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr., beginning his final term, was repudiated when the junior Democrats dumped the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and elected one of their own to replace him.
House Minority Leader Robert Michel (R-Ill.) has avoided that kind of embarrassment, but must constantly look over his shoulder at the Young Turks in his party, starting with his deputy, Rep. Trent Lott of Mississippi. Lott and his allies wrote the Republican platform of 1984 and don't want it compromised by Michel's usual half-a-loaf legislative tactics.
In the face of all those daunting difficulties, it may seem almost irrelevant that there are emerging areas of policy agreement between Democrats and Republicans in the House. Nonetheless, that development is significant, for it suggests the direction in which public policy may move in the years ahead -- even if it turns out that no great progress can be made this year.
The clearest and most recent example of this nascent agreement came with the publication this week of "The First 100 Days," a legislative agenda prepared by the House Republican Research Committee under its chairman, Rep. Jerry Lewis of California. It is interesting to compare "100 Days" with a somewhat similar booklet, "Renewing America's Promise," published exactly a year ago by a task force of the House Democratic Caucus hed by Rep. Martin O. Sabo of Minnesota under then-caucus chairman Gillis Long of Louisiana.
Lewis and Sabo, who came to Congress in 1978, both held leadership positions in their state legislatures, and both are thorough partisans.
Lewis' manifesto claims that the Democratic Party "has run out of dreams and offers (only) recurring nightmares." Sabo's pamphlet bristles with references to "the Reagan recession" and "the Reagan deficits," etc.
But if you push past the rhetoric, you find fundamental agreement on three or four essential domestic-policy propositions:
First, both these manifestos say that the major goal -- and the criterion by which all other policies must be measured -- is sustained economic growth. That is the keynote of the GOP document -- but no more so than the Democrats', which says, "We must grow, if we are to preserve the American promise of economic opportunity. And we must grow steadily, without the recurring fits of inflation and bouts of recession which have plagued our economy for the past 15 years."
Second, they agree that tax simplification can be a major component of a long- term growth strategy. That agreement strongly suggests that (skeptics notwithstanding) President Regan may have allies available when he moves ahead to seek bipartisan support for a tax simplification bill.
Third, both papers recognize that the federal budget deficit is a clear and present danger to sustained growth. The Democrats were predictably harsh in their comments on the president's leadership default on this issue. But the Republicans' statement explicitly recognizes -- as Reagan has refused to do -- the requirement for "cost-saving initiatives" in the Pentagon and the possible need for "new revenue" to reduce the deficit.
Fourth, both parties' House manifestos recognize the need for an explicit government strategy for economic growth. The Republicans are skeptical of the Democrats' call for an "Eonomic Cooperation Council," but they are also implicitly critical of Reagan for dismantling the existing Council of Economic Advisers, saying it is necessary to have such a body, "unconstrained by the institutional perspectives of other agencies . . . to help formulate and promote sound policies."
Perhaps I am reading too much into these areas of agreement. But given the otherwise bleak prospects in the House, one may be forgiven for finding hope wherever it may lie.