The room is as big as a basketball court. The ceilings are 40 feet high; the floors of cork. The walls are waxed wood panels. The congressional committee sits on a horseshoe-shaped dias looking down like judges from a bench. Blazing television lights focus on the witness. There are a couple of tables filled with reporters and the public seating space churns with sightseers. This is one of Washington's big shows.
Who is in the dock? Why it is budget director David Stockman; former member of Congress, he is only 35 and he is one of the most interesting, publicized and verbal men in Washington. Views of his role differ but nobody questions his ability: he is a whole Roosevelt brains-trust rolled into one; the Reagan administration's whizz-kid who repeatedly has found himself the budgetary mouthpiece of the White House and sometimes its controversial figure. It is hard sometimes to avoid his presence in the capital. He has been testifying at hearings like this all over the place. He was on the CBS program Face the Nation last Sunday; he is articulate, unintimidated, self-assured, and a Mississippi of detailed information. When the first Reagan economic proposals were aired a year ago he was there with his billions; in the present budget he seems to know every footnote and paragraph. His mop of thick hair comes to his coat collar; there is acquiline nose, thin, pedantic face, large-rim glasses, rather small mouth.
There is a firm, confident, dominant flow of exposition at such public appearances; the level of billion-dollar marks seems to rise like a tide wherever he sits. There is not the slightest self-consciousness but he does not tend to alienate. Some of the questions from Democrats convey a brutal distrust, based on the revelations in the article in the Atlantic Monthly of December 1981 , revealing that even while he was reassuring Congress about the budget he had gravest secret doubts of his own. He does not lose his temper, however. He is contained and mild. His sharp profile is like that of young Napoleon.
Mr. Stockman enrolled in the Harvard Divinity school, was attached to neo-conservative Daniel Patrick Moynihan, came to Washington and was associated with former congressman and later presidential candidate John Anderson, and incidentally was elected himself to Congress from Michigan. Ultimately he became budget director. He told his progress on the Reagan economic package in regular private sessions with William Greider of the Atlantic. No president had balanced the budget in the past 12 years, but Mr. Stockman thought it could be done by 1984. The President had promised to increase military spending by 7 percent a year, adjusted for inflation, and this translated into the biggest arms buildup in the history of the republic. It was accompanied by extraordinary ''supply-side'' tax cuts which were intended to stimulate the economy. Mr. Stockman tried to persuade the President to raise more revenue by closing tax loopholes, by cutting social programs or by other devices. He sounded confident in talks to congressmen but confided to Mr. Greider, ''None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers.'' Wall Street didn't respond as it was expected to to the tax stimulus. The economic theory behind the President's plan wasn't working, Mr. Stockman privately confided. He made surprising admissions to his chronicler: referring to the Kemp-Roth supply-side theory, he said, ''I've never believed that just cutting taxes alone will cause output and employment to expand.'' Again, among other things he said, ''Kemp-Roth was always just a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate (of taxes).''
These revelations, when they were published, would have ended the political life of any normal office holder. Not Mr. Stockman. President Reagan ''took him to the woodshed,'' he said, and he was almost effaced for a while but now he is back. He is a central figure in the budget fight. Asked last week on CBS-TV how he rated his credibility on Capitol Hill after the recent furor, he replied simply,
''Well, I'll leave that for others to determine and for time to tell.''
Washington watches with awe. Time seems to be on the side of this figure who has few to match him in historical parallels.