The crocuses of recovery

As the cold winds of winter give way to the bright crocuses of spring, the symbols of national renewal also are beginning to appear. More and more evidence accumulates that recovery of the giant American economy is finally on the way: Housing starts jumped 2.9 percent in February - to the highest level since late 1979. The sharp drop in inventories by businesses has slowed, or perhaps even ended, and consumer spending is rising.

In light of the improving news, it is especially important that the nation's elected officials take all reasonable steps to ensure that the recovery proves sturdy and long-lasting. While there is now substantial optimism that the economy will post gains during the first half of this year - aided by such factors as falling or steady gasoline prices - there is less certainty about the second half of the year. And that caution, felt by Wall Street investors as well as professional economists, stems from concern about the magnitude of current and future federal budget deficits. Left unattended, these deficits will keep interest rates high and work against business expansion and consumer spending.

So reducing the deficits remains absolutely vital for a vigorous upswing. This will require two actions: making cuts in the fiscal 1984 budget and finding new tax revenues:

* Additional savings must come in part from defense. Given the belt-tightening of the past two years, there is little room for major cuts in social programs in the administration's fiscal 1984 budget.

The administration's proposed 10 percent real increase in military spending can certainly be reduced. The targets for defense outlays adopted by the House Budget Committee last week are in the right direction. The measure, enacted largely by Democrats along party lines, would hold the inflation-adjusted increase to 4 percent, saving billions of dollars. There is talk on the Senate side of holding increases to between 4 and 6 percent. Such a slowdown would in no way impair modernization of US military forces.

* The Senate should quickly approve the social security reform package already cleared by the House. And while lawmakers need to be careful about making reductions in social programs, there remains room for reductions in such ''entitlement'' programs as veterans benefits.

* On the revenue side, taxes will have to be raised. The trick will be to do this with minimum injury to consumer savings and spending. Suggestions by House Democrats to end or limit the third-year tax cut scheduled to take effect July 1 could limit both spending and savings. It would seem wiser to let the tax cut go forward in order to stimulate the economy and, instead, enact a new $5 to $10 per-barrel tax on imported oil. The latter plan would not only raise substantial revenue but encourage conservation.

* Lawmakers could also help the revenue side of the budget by pressing ahead with reforms of existing tax loopholes - such as ending mortgage-interest deductions for second homes, imposing limits on consumer-credit interest deductions, etc. Stepped-up IRS enforcement and collection measures would provide further tax funds.

Finally, while recognizing that recovery is under way, national lawmakers must not ignore the plight of jobless Americans. The jobs bill now to be worked out in conference between the House and Senate and signed by the President is, for all its imperfections, an important symbol of concern about widespread unemployment. It will help ease some distress and perhaps fuel public confidence that things are on the move.

Recovery is breaking through the gloom. Now let it - like spring - blossom.

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