Good-faith budgetry

There tends to be a good deal of political posturing when a president first submits his annual budget to Congresmw it is not surprising that President Reagan has spoken some tough words about his new budget. But the posturing tends also to be followed by negotiation. So it is also not surprising that we are now seeing signs of this in the Reagan administration. Budget director David Stockman, in congressional testimony, has signaled a White House willingness to compromise and not to exclude some give and take even in the areas of tax cuts and military spending. That is a welcome contrast to the President's earlier rigidity.

Politics is politics, of course, and a feisty presidential posture has its political purposes. But with a $100 billion budget deficit looming and the economy in the throes of recession and high unemployment, it has become a matter of national interest that the President and Congress cooperate. Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri put the matter squarely when he said that the President ''has got to lead this Congress to do things no one wants to do.''

What no one wants to do in an election year is to raise the taxes or make the cuts needed to keep the budget as lean as possible. Yet economists warn of the risks of not working vigorously to eliminate the conflict between a loose fiscal policy, as reflected in the huge deficit, and a tight monetary policy. Mr. Stockman himself is more cautious now about projecting increased savings and a growing economy this year, sobered no doubt by the latest Commerce Department figures showing a 3 percent decline in industrial output.

It is not a matter of slashing the budget across the board but of thoughtfully determining, in every budget category, what the nation genuinely requires and shaping the budget cuts - or increases - accordingly. The defense budget, for example, needs to be scrutinized for areas that could be made more efficient and for specific weapons that are costly but do not contribute to greater security.

In the final analysis the standard ought to be need and fairness. Americans doubtless applaud the fact that the President has held down the growth of government spending to 4.5 percent. They may be less approving that this has been accomplished largely at the expense of the poorest segments of society and to the advantage of the rich. It may be significant, for instance, that Mr. Stockman now hints there is room for compromise on certain tax reductions for business, including the leasing provision which allows companies to sell their unused depreciation tax credits to other companies. The latter is a public theft if there ever was one and, if eliminated, would save some $3 billion a year.

There are a myriad other areas that could be pruned or axed. A major problem is that the lawmakers do not take a dispassionate, unselfed attitude toward their own pet projects and the President, for political reasons, lets them have their way. And so we have - to cite a few dubious items - the $3.2 billion Clinch River breeder reactor which Tennessee wants; the planned $4.5 billion synthetic fuels plant which Kentucky wants; and the milk price supports which the Wisconsin diary industry wants. The White House is aware of the potential here for budget cutting but, as Mr. Stockman owned up in his Atlantic interview with respect to Clinch River, ''It just wasn't worth fighting.''

There are limits to political compromise, of course. But the important thing is that Congress start the process of negotiation. Mr. Stockman says the President ''will look very carefully at a good faith, sincere effort. . .to propose something different.'' That should be taken as an invitation to action.

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