DAVID Stockman departs the Reagan White House in much the same way that he entered it: with a feisty and unpredictable independence that dominated the news, held his critics at bay, and kept the players on the Oval Office economic team in disarray. The budget director's eventual exit this year was expected. That had long been discussed. In August he will leave to join a prominent Wall Street investment firm at a substantial increase in salary -- a step in his favor that is not to be lightly dismissed, now that Mr. Stockman is a family man.
The timing, however, was something of a surprise -- and in a sense unfortunate, given the sensitive negotiations under way between the White House and Congress in reaching a meaningful compromise on the fiscal 1986 federal budget.
Mr. Stockman, after all -- for all the controversy he has generated about federal fiscal policies -- knows the ins and outs of the budget better than just about anyone else in Washington.
In that regard, he will be greatly missed, particularly by President Reagan and the President's economic team at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Stockman, it must be remembered, was more than just the impish and often-iconoclastic conservative who got into trouble with Mr. Reagan by talking out of turn with a reporter for The Atlantic magazine, or who nettled liberals by seeking to curtail programs like Amtrak, or who directly challenged the clout of the Pentagon by questioning military retirement programs. A former congressman, he had also once been a divinity student. Underneath his frequent sorties against congressionally popular federal programs, he was an economic rationalist -- and an honest bookkeeper.
Although he looked at federal programs slightly differently than did former White House economic adviser Martin Feldstein, he was, like Dr. Feldstein, a realist who refused to hide the truth about the numbers on the bottom line of the nation's ledgers. And what Stockman saw early on was that the numbers were not adding up: that without major policy changes, such as deep budget cuts or significant tax increases or a combination of both, the United States was entering a period of massive budget deficits. Why? Because deficits had been built into the system by the very structure of the economic policy that had been put into place by the White House and Congress in the early 1980s: deep tax cuts combined with a massive defense buildup.
Stockman recently got into trouble with the White House once again by pointing to that quandary and the possibility, as he candidly noted, that without firm action by Washington, deficits in the range of $200 billion and more will be with the nation well into the next decade.
Is there anything now happening in Washington to suggest otherwise? Unfortunately, no. The budget compromise now worked out (on the order of $56 billion for fiscal 1986) is merely another ``down payment'' on the deficit. In this sense, Stockman is probably leaving the administration at just about the right moment, so far as his own reputation is concerned. Unless Washington is willing to show more mettle than it has recently, the long-range deficit outlook does not look overly encouraging.
That is not to say that a sizable tax increase is now the answer for reducing the deficit, as some lawmakers are urging. A tax increase at a time of tepid economic growth, as now, could help spin the nation toward recession. But there are steps that Washington could and should take to help reduce deficits:
The defense budget could be cut far more sharply than it has. And the rate of growth in some expensive entitlement programs (such as social security) could, as Stockman has urged over the past few years, be slowed.
How many federal budget directors over the years could most Americans name? Or even US Treasury secretaries, for that matter? Stockman has left a mark on Washington that few economic officials have been able to duplicate. His choice of words was often unfortunate. He sometimes gave the impression of being callous about the concerns of the less advantaged. He could be stubborn and petulant. But for all that, he brought to Washington a comprehensive sense of the nation's fiscal concerns -- and a sense of urgency that action has to be taken to reduce the deficits to protect the nation's economic well-being.
Mr. Stockman will be missed.