In vetoing a $14.1 billion supplemental appropriation bill, President Reagan has no doubt scored points with conservatives chagrined at his $99 billion tax hike. But now that Mr. Reagan has sent his signal to the political right, Congress should make every effort to override the veto when it reconvenes this week.
An override will be difficult. The President needs only 146 votes in the House to sustain his position. And, given the Republican control of the Senate, an override will be an uphill battle in that chamber as well. Yet more is involved in the veto skirmish than just the question as to who sets economic priorities, the White House or Congress.
The vetoed bill is a balanced and fair compromise measure. It contains $350 million for Mr. Reagan's new Caribbean aid program, as well as funds for the space shuttle and for military salaries. But, as noted by Mr. Reagan, the bill cut back some funds for defense - roughly $2 billion, though Democrats contend the actual cuts are less than that - and also provides $918 million in additional funds for social programs that were not sought by the White House.
However, the Republican/Democratic compromise - defense funds down somewhat, social spending up somewhat - was enough to win passage in the House by a top-heavy 348-to-67 margin and by voice vote in the GOP-led Senate. The lawmakers hardly acted irresponsibly.
What is disturbing about the veto is not the political calculation involved - that can be understood - but the fact that the White House is so adamant about taking away the $918 million (out of $14 billion) earmarked for programs aiding the poorest and least advantaged segments of society. Whether intentional or not , such a course reinforces the argument of some that Mr. Reagan is indifferent to the burdens of the neediest.
If the veto is sustained, where can Congress make cuts to ensure that a susbsequent measure is satisfactory to the White House? The bill provides $217 million in funds to help low-income college students. Such funds would add another $25 to $40 a year to current grants. There is room for reductions here.
But cuts in the other two major social programs involved would present more difficult problems. They include $211 million for community service jobs for the elderly and $146 million to improve school skills for disadvantaged children.
It is difficult to fathom how cuts in these programs could benefit the nation in the long run. Perhaps Congress could avoid trims in these areas by restoring some funds for several favorite programs of Mr. Reagan, including an extra $53 million in economic assistance sought for El Salvador. The current measure provides $75 million in assistance.
Lawmakers have an obligation to let the White House know that federal spending programs must retain an element of fairness that supports appropriate defense programs but also takes account of the plight of Americans now facing desperate economic conditions.