Shhh, budgeteers at work

There was something particularly encouraging about Representative Bolling expressing a bit of optimism about the budget in the light of those private meetings between the White House and Democratic congressional leaders. For Mr. Bolling is the Rules Committee chairman who said during last year's budgetary blitz that there had never before been an administration that demanded ''to dictate so completely'' to the Congress. He still sees the Reagan economic program as massively unfair, but on Sunday's broadcast of ''Meet the Press'' he said he could report some hope for progress without violating the secrecy of the meetings.

The federal budget of the United States hardly seems a matter for secrecy. But it is better to have secret get-togethers than to have none at all. The latter had appeared to be the prospect after President Reagan offered a completed budget in a manner that left any initiative for compromise to Congress -- and any basis for compromise severely restricted in advance. Last month state leaders of Mr. Reagan's own party were saying it was time for him to take the initiative in working out a package with Congress. Well before the end of the month White House chief of staff James Baker had begun private meetings with congressional opposition leaders. And White House counselor Edwin Meese openly stated that the President was prepared to negotiate alterations with both Republicans and Democrats.

Mr. Baker's role at the time was said to be merely listening, not negotiating. The effort was supposed to foster bipartisan agreement not to make political capital of any compromise that might finally be reached. Mr. Baker seemed an apt choice for listening to various sides and seeing the Reagan program as others might see it. In 1976 he directed the delegate hunt that ensured Gerald Ford's presidential nomination over Ronald Reagan. Then he became campaign manager for another Reagan opponent, George Bush. Now he understands Reaganomics from the inside as well as outside.

So, even though the participants' lips remain sealed about the content of the budget meetings, the American public may be entitled to assume from Congressman Bolling's cautious optimism that the White House has been ''listening'' to some effect.

Meanwhile, Mr. Reagan has added to this private track his own public initiative on explaining his economic program to the people while leaving the main burden for compromise to the Congress. On Saturday he began a series of brief radio talks to air his views directly.

Politicians may argue that the White House is doing all this mainly because of Republican alarm over going into the fall election without sufficient economic improvement. But, with or without an election, conditions demand that both White House and Congress expedite budgetary agreement for the sake of the country.

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