Budgetmanship

Today is May 16. We mention that fact only because the United States Congress - by its own statutory budget process - is supposed to agree on a budget resolution by May 15. Given the failure of the Senate to agree on a fiscal year 1984 budget last week, May 15 has come and gone and Congress has once again failed to adhere to its own budget system. Nor are senators alone in their apparent indifference to the deadline. According to a White House spokesman, President Reagan would prefer no budget resolution at all rather than one calling for higher tax increases than he seeks.

The budget process was put into place as part of the Congressional Budget Act of 1974. That reform was designed to require lawmakers to adopt - and adhere to - specific spending and revenue targets. The idea was a splendid one, but for the past several years Congress has run roughshod over that process.

One could coin some Will Rogers-style quips about all this if the federal deficits now projected for the next few years were not so serious. To finance those deficits, soaring above $200 billion annually, the government will be required to engage in massive federal borrowing. Such borrowing will put heavy upward pressure on interest rates and could endanger economic recovery.

The Senate had a chance to reach a last-minute compromise last week with a plan presented by Senators Weicker and Gorton. Their proposal would have raised various taxes somewhat more than under the White House budget (which was defeated on an earlier Senate vote). It also provided for defense spending at a level higher than that in the House-passed budget, although less than that proposed by the administration. Unfortunately, the compromise budget failed - with the Senate voting to send the whole issue back to the Budget Committee.

Can Senate leaders muster a majority for a reasonable budget? Even more important, can the White House take the lead on the budget issue and make the compromises now necessary to ensure a 1984 budget resolution at all? That means yielding somewhat on defense spending and accepting higher taxes for the next three years.

Lawmakers and the White House have an obligation to put aside political differences and reach an accommodation. The task of leadership in a democratic society, where differences are often sharp, has always been that of finding a middle ground of agreement. To fail to reach a budget compromise is to subject the United States - and the American people - to the risk of higher interest rates and another recession.

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