A DEBATE has gone on throughout Ronald Reagan's presidency over the relative claims of social welfare and defense spending, and over Mr. Reagan's record in these areas. The administration continues to argue for curbs on increases in welfare costs. Democrats have charged it with slighting domestic programs in its defense buildup and push for tax cuts. What changes in federal spending have in fact occurred during the past eight years? Any answer won't, of course, tell us what needs to be done in the next four years; a variety of assessments and values comes into play on that broad question. But it does help us filter out some of the exaggeration and misstatements that have dominated discussion of priorities in federal spending - a persistent undercurrent in this year's presidential campaign.
In 1980, federal spending was 22 percent of the country's gross national product. In fiscal year 1988, it is exactly the same proportion. The share has changed little over an extended period: Federal spending was about 20 percent of GNP in 1952, 18 percent in 1960, 21 percent in 1968, and 21 percent in 1976.
It's widely assumed that this stability masks big shifts in the proportions going to different sectors, such as increases in defense outlays and cuts in welfare spending in the Reagan years. Military spending has climbed. It was 23 percent of all federal spending in 1980; now it is 27 percent. This is modest compared with that of the 1950-55 rearmament, when military spending rose from 27 percent to 49 percent of the federal total. But the climb in defense outlays during the '80s - which peaked in 1987 and is now receding - is clearly consequential.
On the other hand, it is simply not true - by any measure - that welfare spending has been cut in the 1980s. Health and income security spending was 43 percent of the federal total in 1980; in fiscal 1988 (which ends Sept. 30) it is about 45 percent. Over this span, spending on programs for the poor climbed about 75 percent.
This rise is somewhat less than that for the major welfare programs that don't have means tests - an increase just over 80 percent in the case of social security and roughly 115 percent for medicare - but it indicates that low-income assistance was far from demolished. Adjusted for inflation, federal spending for the poor has increased modestly during Reagan's eight years in office.
Reviewing the data in 1984, economist John Weicher observed that ``both the budget and program changes [in federal welfare] turn out to be smaller than much of the public discussion would suggest....'' Now, looking back on two Reagan terms, Mr. Weicher's conclusion seems even more firmly grounded. Continuities, not radical departure, have proved to be the defining feature of the last eight years. The 1960s, not the 1980s, were the decade of change in welfare spending.
Outlays for welfare and defense in the 1980s would undoubtedly have been different had the Reagan administration been able to get just what it wanted without having to compromise with congressional Democrats. Separation of powers has always had an enormous impact on American public policy. But the more important point is that a new dynamic governing federal spending was already evident before Reagan assumed office.
After two decades of sharp increases in domestic spending, the public wanted restraint in established levels of government assistance. It did not favor cutbacks. There was a mandate for neither ``more'' nor ``less.'' On the defense side, dismay over United States weakness in the years immediately after the Vietnam war generated strong demands for a renewed national commitment. The pattern of welfare and military spending of the last decade thus had a pretty firm foundation.
Democrats and Republicans really do differ in Campaign '88 on a number of important policy questions that express themselves in the levels of welfare and military spending. The argument that the parties are ``tweedledum and tweedledee,'' that it doesn't much matter who wins, always strikes me as singularly wrongheaded.
Still, at every stage in American history, needs dictated by the larger social and economic setting, together with public expectations, have set boundaries within which the major parties must operate - and imposed sharp limits on the range of permissible differences. Constrained by such boundaries, the reality of the partisan split over federal spending in the 1980s has never matched the rhetoric.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and a professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.