FOR most folks, putting together a budget is more often than not a tedious, bittersweet affair. Trade-offs are necessary. A vacation may have to be balanced off against a school project. Or the purchase of a new car weighed against the need to paint the house. In that sense, Americans can identify with Washington these days, as the nation's highest officials go about their tedious and equally bittersweet task of putting together a federal budget for fiscal year 1986 and beyond. A budget process that is difficult enough for the average family is all the harder when the family includes 435 members of the House, 100 senators, a president, and all the numerous Cabinet officers, subofficials, and scores of interest groups that are invariably involved.
But the President and members of Congress are in Washington precisely because they were sent there by the American people to administer the nation's governmental affairs. Their task entails a fiduciary trust.
Unfortunately, there is more than enough criticism to go around these days for the way Washington is dealing with the budget process -- particularly the need to take firm steps to reduce federal deficits that are expected to be in the range of $200 billion annually for years to come.
We still choose to believe that Washington will come up with a responsible budget package -- if not this week, then certainly by year's end. Indeed, the elements of a budget package are basically set. The House, by moving ahead to pass some 10 of 13 appropriations bills, is in effect freezing spending at current levels. Moreover, both the Senate and House have reached roughly similar goals on most spending programs: less for defense than originally sought by either the White House or Senate; and sligh tly more for domestic social programs than called for by the Senate and White House.
At the same time, there is more, much more, that all parties to the budget process could and should be agreeing on at this juncture, as lawmakers prepare to head out for their August recess. That particularly involves the need to work together on a more cooperative basis than was the case earlier this week.
The Republican senators, for example, who once again found the rug pulled from under them by the White House, are no doubt feeling uneasy about the whole budget process. President Reagan says he will not accept the latest effort at a compromise proposed by GOP Senate leaders, including a new oil-import tax, as well as a reduction in social security benefits.
Somehow one can't quite imagine the Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson White House allowing its own Senate to go out on a sacrificial limb -- as took place this week -- without first having gotten on the phone lines to work out a compromise.
Indeed, this week's action by the White House tends to confirm the views of many lawmakers that the administration is not especially concerned about the deficits. Rather, the deficits, as the White House sees it, serve the useful purpose of keeping the heat on Congress to cut back social programs, one of the primary objectives of the administration from its earliest days in office back in 1981.
There is still time to shape a meaningful budget geared to bringing down the deficits. All the players know the main elements of such a comprehensive agreement: lower defense spending; some reduction in spending on social security; and, yes, some modest increase in taxes, particularly indirect taxes. A $5-a-barrel oil import surcharge, for example, would seem logical at a time of falling energy prices, since it would not be directly felt by most consumers and would help promote domestic energy developme nt.
Washington has an obligation to the American people to produce a meaningful budget agreement to reduce the deficits.
It is time to act.