Back to the budget

THE convening of the new Democratic-led 100th Congress today, as well as the introduction of the nation's first $1 trillion-plus federal budget, marks a historic confluence that would probably leave many a Founding Father stunned. A trillion dollars! How many Americans are blinking over those numbers? Compare today's relative indifference on fiscal affairs to the period after the American Revolution, when folks groused about the federal government's assuming some $21 million in domestic debts incurred by the states during the struggle against Britain.

The new budget proposed by President Reagan for fiscal year 1988 (which begins Oct. 1) is actually $1.024 trillion. The budget itself, enormous as it is in sheer numbers, will only be one of a number of issues that will be taken up by the new Congress, including trade legislation, aid to the contras, clean-water rules, and the continuing inquiry into the Iran-contra scandal.

Yet, certainly the budget will take center stage. A timely examination is only appropriate. Last year, the Congress and White House performed rather poorly in meeting the federal budget demands. A budget resolution wasn't approved until June 27, some two months late. Congress never got around to passing the required 13 individual appropriations bills.

Can the new Democratic leadership - headed by House Speaker Jim Wright and Senate majority leader Robert Byrd - meet this year's deadlines? The final budget is supposed to be done by April 10. The 13 appropriations bills are supposed to be approved by June 30. Meeting those deadlines will be a challenge. Mr. Reagan, in submitting his budget, says he is doing his part of the bargain - ``and on schedule.'' And, the President adds, ``I ask Congress to do the same.''

But the White House budget - all $1.024 trillion - has already been largely discounted in Washington. Reagan's budget, on its face, does meet the required $108 billion Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction target. But that's only on paper. To get the deficit down to the ``magic 108'' - as the fiscal year 1988 deficit level is being called - is based on a number of uncertain occurrences, such as an economy operating slightly better than is projected by many economists; deep spending cuts in popular domestic programs; and sales of federal assets. Reagan proposes a 3 percent real increase for the Pentagon, while eliminating some two dozen domestic programs.

What could be missed in the coming budget give-and-take will be the role performed by the GOP leadership in the Senate the past few years. Republican moderates were the major dealmakers between the White House and Congress. Most likely, the new Democratic-led Congress will also seek to avoid an all-out battle with the White House. There is, basically, a consensus in Congress on the budget. Defense spending will be held down. Spending on social programs will rise slightly.

Fortunately, lawmakers have some pluses on their side. The economy is showing modest growth, which means more tax revenues. Tax dollars will also increase under the new tax reform law. Federal borrowing costs are down, thanks to lower interest rates.

Even if Congress and the White House make no budget cuts, the deficit will continue to shrink.

Still, the slightly improved picture on the deficit is hardly an excuse for inaction. Lawmakers have breathing room to fashion a compromise budget that curbs the deficit - but not at the expense of fundamental services for the American people.

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