As the final 229-to-196 vote in favor of the Democratic budget plan in the US House of Representatives indicated this week, the political balance in Washington has changed dramatically. The conservative Democratic-GOP coalition that dominated Congress in the first two years of the Reagan administration is now gone - swept away by last year's midterm elections in which Democrats picked up 26 House seats. The Democratic leadership will now be going on the offensive in seeking to shape the nation's political, economic, and social agenda.
Surely the US can only benefit from a vigorous debate about the nation's priorities, as well as the give-and-take that will now be necessary on both sides of the political aisle. At the same time this very division of responsibility - with the Senate and House controlled by different parties - requires basic cooperation on the part of lawmakers lest political considerations lead to the type of stridency that has marred some Congresses in past American history.
The special need for mutuality at this time stems from the fact that the nation is at last emerging from a particularly challenging recession. It is essential that lawmakers take all reasonable steps to ensure that the recovery proves long-lasting. That means reducing current and future deficits, while avoiding unwise tax increases that could actually work against consumer spending and the new investment necessary to further business expansion.
In that regard, the Democratic budget has both pluses and minuses which the Senate would seem wise to consider:
* On the plus side, the Democrats' budget - which projects a smaller deficit than that proposed by the White House - would hold defense increases to 4 percent after adjustment for inflation. Certainly the administration defense budget, which provides for a 10 percent increase after inflation, could be cut without in any way impairing the nation's security. Given the whopping deficits of $200 billion and more now projected for future years, it is essential that spending be held down wherever possible. As President Eisenhower noted back in the 1950s, ensuring the nation's economic well-being is no less important than providing for new weaponry.
* Again on the plus side, the Democratic budget restores funds for a number of social programs that have already been cut to bare-bone levels in the two prior Reagan administration-approved budgets. There would be additional funding for two dozen programs that would be slashed under the Reagan budget, including child care, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and low-income fuel assistance. Given the magnitude of earlier cuts, plus the duration of the recession, there are valid reasons for some additional funding. At the same time lawmakers need to be alert to making every feasible economy in such programs. Waste can be found throughout the federal establishment, not just in the Pentagon.
* On the minus side, the Democratic budget tax proposals could well threaten the recovery. Is it in the nation's best interest to take away the third stage of the administration's three-year tax cut, as the Democratic plan could well do? Why should indexing for inflation be scuttled? If lawmakers want to impose new taxes, should they not be required to do so up front, by going directly to the voters with an actual tax increase proposal? Yet the Democratic budget, by seeking tax increases of $90 billion for fiscal years 1985 and 1986, endangers not only the tax cut but also indexing.
The Senate will take up the administration budget after the Easter recess. Its task, given the new political realities in Washington, will be to shape a budget that strikes the middle ground - with the objective of slashing deficits, ensuring that basic social programs are adequately funded, and avoiding unwise tax hikes that could thwart recovery. Lawmakers have already shown a willingness - and ability - to compromise on such key matters as the social security reform package and a jobs bill. Such compromise is equally crucial on the budget.