The great budget stall

Were President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill listening recently when Treasury Secretary Donald Regan told a television audience what is now clear to almost everyone in Washington: the economy is stalled in the water?

Said Mr. Regan: ''It's not going anywhere -- it's not going down much, it's not going up any.'' And then, as an afterthought, he noted: ''Something must move it to drive it. And what the signal will be (is) if the Congress and the administration can come together and say, 'We are cutting deficits.' ''

''If the Congress and the administration can come together. . . .'' That they have not at this late date done so, given the fact that lawmakers are required to act on a budget by May 15, is unconscionable. The issue is not one of just meeting the requirements of legislatively mandated bookkeeping deadlines, although responsible management practices alone should ensure that.

The more serious issue is that every day of delay, irresolution, and posturing means an additional day of delay in moving the economy out of its current stall. For it is precisely the anticipated high deficits -- now estimated by the administration at $101 billion for fiscal year 1983 and by the Congressional Budget Office at $120 billion or more -- which have upset financial markets and kept interest rates at their current high levels.

Thus, putting together a meaningful budget that directly slashes the deficit is an indispensable first step in pulling the US economy out of recession.

Yet President Reagan says that he will not participate in the budget talks until congressional leaders first produce an overall package which he can consider. And Speaker O'Neill says that if Mr. Reagan first agrees on some sort of new tax -- such as a tax to be placed on the wealthy - he will abandon his opposition to curbing cost-of-living increases in entitlement programs.

What is particularly disturbing in all this sidestepping is that the broad outlines of compromise now appear to be evident in at least two areas:

* Taxes. A 4 percent tax surcharge, such as proposed by several lawmakers, would at least quickly raise substantial revenues, while still retaining the third year of Mr. Reagan's 1981 tax cuts. Unfortunately, surtaxes often tend to stay in place. Another option would be an across-the-board tax on oil as proposed by Senator Baker. But either option would raise revenues, reduce the deficit, and leave the thrust of the administration tax program in place.

* Entitlements. Placing a cap on cost-of-living increases could save billions of dollars. Limited to a 4 percent increase, for example, the savings would add up to $12 billion in fiscal year 1983.

There is also, of course, the defense budget. Lawmakers could find billions of dollars here that could be cut without endangering the nation's security.

In any case, the time is at hand for the players in this overdrawn budget game to strike some reasonable compromises. For several years now Congress has wound up forcing the government to operate under continuing resolutions. Perhaps some persons in the current impasse would privately welcome another year of government without a budget as a way of saving their own political positions. Given the stakes, however - nothing less than the well-being of the US economy - it is time for everyone involved to exercise the highest sense of responsibility. The US needs a budget compromise.

Now.

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