Will the House roll over for the Senate on sanctions against South Africa?
Probably. It has gone prone so often in recent months, it could become known as the flop House.
There was a time when it stood up to President Reagan. But, at length, weary, worried, worn-down, it finally said yes to him on aid to the counterrevolutionaries of Nicaragua, and the rest has been easy. Anyone who comes knocking on the House door these days is admitted.
There may have been a scrap of dignity in surrendering to Reagan, who is something of an icon. But now the House quivers before an undistinguished group of people it used to regard as equal at best, if not inferior.
Look what happened when the House went to conference with the Senate on the defense bill. Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, holding the white flag high, led his little flock of conferees into abject acquiescence in all the Senate's schemes to give the Pentagon more money to squander.
The House had said $292 billion would do. But the Senate held that $302 billion was needed, and the House meekly said yes.
The House, which reluctantly started breathing nerve gas after holding out against it for seven years, tried to make itself feel better by ordering a two-year delay in procurement. But the Senate said that was all nonsense, we must have it at once, and the House said, "Why not?"
The House had bravely eliminated 22 weapons systems it thought were useless or demented. But the Senate hates gun controls on anything from Saturday night specials to MX missiles, and in conference, the Senate prevailed.
The House had voted to ban testing of antisatellite weapons. But the Senate likes nukes in heaven as well as on earth. And guess who won.
The House tried to stop the revolving door for Pentagon employes, and there was even more reason than usual to look sharp at the practice. The present top procurement official, Mary Ann Gilleece, was brazenly hustling business for the consulting firm she plans to form when she leaves the Defense Department and asking $30,000 apiece from defense contractors whose interests she will guard. But the Senate hates to discourage commercial enterprise, and the House gave way.
Now you ask yourself if a House like this could possibly stick to a principled action against the apartheid government of South Africa.
The House voted strongly to keep American firms from investing their funds in South Africa. The Senate told itself that if it did anything so clear-cut -- and possibly subject to Red-baiting -- Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the friend of dictators, would filibuster. So it passed a weaker version. The two sides are scheduled to meet this week.
Some Republicans, including the chairman of the Conservative Opportunity Society, Rep. Vin Weber (R-Minn.), think it makes good politics as well as good sense for a Republican administration to apply financial heat to the intransigent Botha government.
But Reagan is sticking with his policy of "constructive engagement" -- which means never doing anything mean to the bigots in Pretoria lest you wound their sensitive feelings -- and has threatened to veto any stern measure. Like others who urge understanding for the unacceptable, he cites the harm that would be done to the poor black masses of South Africa if they lost their jobs with American firms.
Bishop Tutu has noted tartly that no such tender consideration for the peasants of Nicaragua stayed Reagan's hand when he slapped a trade embargo on the Sandinistas, who do not shoot their people in the streets just because they don't like the look of them.
In South Africa, the corpses pile up as the political funerals produce more killings. No end is in sight. The president has called for the ending of the state of the emergency but not for his farcical policy of "constructive engagement," the only rationale left to the racists in charge in Pretoria.
The United States is lagging behind France, which has unexpectedly stepped forward as the moral leader on apartheid. The French have not always been known for the ethical content of their foreign policy. It has often been pragmatic, not to say materialistic, as in the sale of a nuclear power plant to Iraq.
But racial bigotry is not one of France's faults. France's response to the violence in South Africa was to call home her ambassador and impose a trade embargo, just like that. Vive la France. But her example is not followed in the world's greatest democracy. The House is not a home to liberal ideals any more. It's afraid of its shadow.