FIVE YEARS AGO, long before the Iran-contra affair, a group of prominent political figures from both major parties decided to take a long look at the Constitution and, in particu lar, its separation of powers. Its conclusion: that while the system works well in guarding against tyranny and abuse of high office, it has produced chronic "confrontation, indecision and deadlock" and diffused "accountability for results."

That's not hard to buy. Anyone who has been around more than the last year or two has to be appalled at the fact that three times in the last three decades - under Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Reagan - government has virtually ground to a halt because of differences between the legislative and executive branches. In the Johnson and Nixon cases, the stalemate was resolved only by the most drastic of steps, departure of a president. In the Reagan case, the jury is still out.If the United States enjoyed parliamentary government, as do Britain, France and most other democracies, there would have been a vote of no confidence, a government would have fallen, but the pieces would have been picked up. Soon, with new direction, it would be business as usual.

Our grade school civics course taught us the separation of powers meant that there are three branches of government, the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. And that the legislative branch makes the laws, the executive carries out the laws and the judiciary interprets the laws.

We all know, however, that it isn't quite that simple. The executive branch has an important role in making the laws, and if the legislature declines to enact them in the way it suggests, it sometimes behaves as if the legislature wasn't there.

That's the big problem with the Iran-contra affair. Congress is no more virtuous than the White House. It too knows how to wink at subterfuge. Witness all the nonsense about budget balancing. Gramm-Rudman is a fraud. Few in Congress privately would deny that. But Congress trots out its self- righteousness conveniently when it finds the executive doing something with which it does not agree. Or about which it hasn't been told.

The wise men studying this sad state of affairs have come up with a number of recommendations, among them: 1) extending the terms of House members to four years and those of senators to eight and scheduling all congressional elections in presidential election years; 2) allowing members of Congress to

serve in the Cabinet and other executive branch jobs; and 3) reducing the two- thirds vote needed by a president to get treaties ratified.

This and some other recommendations about campaign expenditures seems to us to miss the point. The executive branch and the legislative have fundamentally different orientations. Congress homes in on local and regional problems, the president on national ones. This made sense in the early years of the republic when geographical differences were great. It makes less sense today when every one of the 50 states sports McDonald's.

What's needed is something not even mentioned in the Constitution, rejuvenated and strengthened political parties. They must be given purpose. They must be given discipline. This won't end all the problems, notably the one of control divided between, say, a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. But it should help.

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