Good news on inflation, but more gloom on the deficit

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The good news is that the monthly inflation climb - 0.3 percent - is the lowest in a year and a half.

The bad news is that the United States, with 9 million unemployed, faces a 1982 deficit of $111 billion, according to the latest estimates by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The Reagan administration's estimate is $98.6 billion. Either figure makes it almost certain that Congress will cut the proposed defense budget.

In testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee Feb. 25, CBO director Alice Rivlin went on to predict that the cumulative deficit figures through 1985 would exceed the administation projections by $140 billion.

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The anxiety-level in Washington has been rising but is almost as variable as the volatile stock market, where Wall Street is expressing its own uncertainties. Politically, the big question is President Reagan's reaction to evidence of the forthcoming huge federal deficit: Will he cut back on expenditures and coming tax cuts and defense expenditures? The mood in Congress seems to be moving toward a slowdown in the ambitious defense increases, scheduled to rise from $160 billion a year in 1981 to around $364 billion in 1987.

The happiest thing in Washington is the slowdown in the inflation rate shown in January's figures released by the Labor Department. It works out at an annual rate of 3.5 percent compared with 8.9 percent for last year. The consumer price index is set at 282.5 for January, which means that a ''market basket'' of goods and services that cost only $100 in 1967 would cost $282.50 today.

Government statisticians warn that the reduced inflation rate is probably too good to last: The immediate decline is largely due to gasoline price cuts and lower clothing costs, which may be temporary. President Reagan has cited reduced inflation as an administration success. It has been purchased partly, however, by the high interest rates engineered by the Federal Reserve Board. These rates have in turn raised the price of real estate, cars and other goods by installment.

Democrats made their annual report from the Congressional Joint Economic Committee, simultaneously with the new government cost-of-living figures.

''This country is in a deep recession - the worst unemployment since the depression,'' they said. They cited ''widespread business bankruptcy, great strains on our federal system through the shortchanging of state and local governments, large resources of people and goods wasted by stagnation, deficits dangerous and climbing, and the rest of the world badly hurt by our economic mismanagement.''

In a contrasting report, the committee's Republican minority strongly opposed rollbacks in proposed Reagan tax cuts and argued that administration programs are improving matters. Many observers here see a showdown imminent between White House and Congress over the deficit.

For fiscal year 1983, Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger asks $215.9 billion. In sharp public testimony here, Mr. Weinberger declares that a proposed expansion.

The good news on the January inflation slowdown comes at a dramatic moment. It bolsters the President's argument that inflation is coming down. But it doesn't satisfy critics who charge that high interest rates will continue until the deficit is scaled down. Some see an issue of will between President Reagan and Congress, including a Republican: Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the budget committee.

The President is ''sticking to his guns,'' Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan declared here. But he called a Domenici plan for $320 billion spending cuts and tax increases over three years ''a reasonable proposal.''

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