For Now, Arms Win

THIS won't be the year when the United States decisively shifts resources from the military to domestic needs. The emphasis on those needs - education, job training, housing, and infrastructure, to name some - has grown in the wake of the Los Angeles rioting. But Washington's course appears set. The Bush administration is likely to get pretty much the $281 billion it wants for defense in the 1993 budget.

Why weren't those clamoring for a larger "peace dividend" able to shake a few more dollars out of the Pentagon's wallet? To begin with, the would-be budget choppers disagreed on how to use savings. One body of opinion favored applying any peace dividend to deficit reduction to boost the country's long-term economic health. Others wanted to shift the funds immediately to domestic programs.

That shift would have required tearing down the 1990 budget agreement between the administration and Congress that forbids the transfer of money between defense and domestic accounts. Earlier this year, the agreement appeared ready to tumble, but the persisting recession helped change that. Congress was hesitant to take a step that could be interpreted as fiscal irresponsibility by the financial markets.

More important, members became acutely sensitive to any move that might threaten jobs in home districts.

Even Democrats who had pushed for deeper defense cuts found themselves arguing the strategic value of B-2 bombers, Seawolf submarines, and other systems designed specifically to meet the now nonexistent Soviet threat.

At the same time, many who favored deficit reduction had concluded it was better to keep the agreement intact and let the cuts already ordered by the administration take place without any chance of the money being transferred to another spending area.

There's still an outside chance that the political dynamics could change as the election nears, and that the budget-agreement walls may yet be lowered.

More likely, Washington's policymakers will wait until next year's budget deliberations. For fiscal 1994, the walls go down automatically, in accord with the agreement. That's when a major shift in spending priorities could be seen.

But "Wait 'til next year" has a hollow ring to someone writing from the home of the Boston Red Sox. If it's going to happen, millions of Americans will have to let their representatives know they want it to happen.

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