There can only be hard choices now for President Reagan and the US Congress as they face the challenge of deepening recession and the fact that it will be impossible to balance the federal budget by 1984. Yet the nation's highest lawmakers need not - and must not - shrink from that test since it has long been evident that righting the giant American economy after years of high inflation and stagnation would require patience and sacrifice. The need now is for the exercise of intelligence and responsibility by those entrusted with management of the nation's fiscal household.
There of course can be little joy at the White House in finding itself caught up in recession, with joblessness reaching eight percent and the nation's output of goods and services falling sharply. Yet the recession itself is a a result of past efforts by the Federal Reserve Board - and the Carter and Reagan administrations - to reduce the rate of increase in the money supply and help bring down inflation. And, in fact, the inflation rate is expected to come down in the months ahead. High interest rates, a factor in the current slump, are also inching downward.
For now, it would seem, the wisest policy would be to stay the course and avoid any retreat from the Fed's battle against inflation. That need not preclude technical adjustments that will have the effect of somewhat easing the Fed's tight money policies. The Fed in fact took such steps last week. But this is hardly the time for any drastic flip-flop on policy. It is also not the time for any major tax hike for 1982, although tax increases for 1983 and 1984, as indicated by the President, need not be totally ruled out.
But ''staying the course'' entails greater responsibility than shown by Congress - and, in part, the administration - in recent days. Take Congress. Since it appears unlikely that the 1982 deficit can be held to the originally intended $43 billion, how can the Senate justify funding such questionable but costly projects as the Clinch River breeder reactor and the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway and chucking any serious effort to get social security under control? Or take the matter of those congressional conferees tacking expensive provisions on the farm bill, with a final measure now possibly exceeding administration targets by $500 million. How can that be justified?
The administration, for its part, is still eager to hold down deficits more by further cutting back social programs than by courageously slashing such self-interest programs as tobacco subsidies, veterans benefits, and ''tax expenditures'' - an assortment of tax deductions, credits, exemptions, and loopholes that enable millions of Americans in effect to receive a subsidy from the Treasury.
In originally promoting its unique mix of budget pruning and supply-side tax-cut policies, the administration promised that its program would be administered equitably to the benefit of the nation as a whole. That must still remain the broad objective. The administration is correct in arguing that its policies, which just went into effect last month, have not failed. They have yet to be really tested. But the trade-off would seem to be an administration obligation to find ways to cut the budget other than by just gutting social programs. Above all, that means an obligation to take another look at its projected military buildup. Surely there is much fat that can be slashed from the Pentagon budget without endangering the nation's safety.
In short, the challenge for lawmakers and the administration now is not a precipitous reversal of policy, but responsible action so that those policies just enacted have a fair chance to work.